Commentary | 19 November 2014

For better or worse, the region has finally found us

For better or worse, the region has finally found us

Rory Medcalf

Australian Financial Review

19 November 2014

  • Rory Medcalf

For better or worse, the region has finally found us

Rory Medcalf

Australian Financial Review

19 November 2014

  • Rory Medcalf

Executive Summary

The G20 and two speeches in Canberra mean that we are bound up in complex regional relations in a way we have never been.

Australian diplomatic history is being made this week, with simultaneous visits by the leaders of China and India marking our country's coming-of-age, no longer as an appendix to Asia, but as a core Indo-Pacific power.

It was always too neat to cast Australia's options as some all-or-nothing choice between China and the United States. Now the real multi-polar playing board is being revealed: a game involving many choices, many players and whole new levels of skill.

Along with the forging of robust bilateral security links with Japan, and the potential for repaired ties with Indonesia under Jokowi, the speeches in Canberra by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have confirmed which nations really matter to our economic and strategic future.

They have also underscored how much we matter to them. Indeed, that is what is most striking about this rolling festival of post-G20 diplomacy. On Monday, the President of China arrived bearing a concluded free-trade agreement unlocking much of his country's vast, new middle- class to Australian business.

Xi brings a new tone of reassurance about China's strategic intentions, which relentlessly accentuates the positives about working with Australia as a security partner, and reimagines Australia as part ofthe "new maritime Silk Road" that will enrich the wider region through connectivity and commerce.

A year of Australia's independent-minded diplomacy about standing up for principles of non-coercion and a rules-based regional order have not jeopardised this outcome. When combined with Australia's willingness and ability to help China on issues of deep domestic concern, such as the search for MH370, a persistent stance of self-respect may have even helped bring closer Australia-China ties about.

And so for the first time, an Australia leader has matched China's rhetoric about mutual political trust.Modi's attention

A day later, it's Narendra Modi's turn. The leader of the world's largest democracy, the super-mandated politician who has secured the most votes in any election in human history, likewise brings a message of mutual respect – reinforced with the shared values of two open societies.

Unlike previous Indian prime ministers, who never really grasped the totality of what Australia has to offer, even when they thought about us at all, Modi is focused on a shared future across the Indian Ocean.

His speech confirmed he is much more interested in the potential of a partnership embracing business, education, trade, energy and security than in raking over even a moment of our wasted 20th-century history of mutual indifference.

Refreshingly, he zoomed in on overlooked positives of the past, like Australian writer and lawyer John Lang's forgotten advocacy of the Rani of Jhansi, a warrior queen who in 1857 led part of India's ill-fated First War of Independence.

Lang's birthplace of Parramatta is now a centre for Australia's fastest-growing migrant community of almost half a million people of Indian origin, 16,000 of whom joined in the electrifying high-point of Modi's visit – a rally at Sydney Olympic Park. Here Modi said something profoundly at odds with caste stereotypes of India, saying, to great applause, how his country could learn from Australia's respect for the dignity of labour.

This underlined the profound societal dimension of diaspora politics that will reinforce – but also sometimes complicate – Australia's relations with India and China in the Asian century. Australians of Chinese origin number close to a million, and they too can be expected to make their voices heard in politics – including foreign policy.

In total, the economic, security and human dimensions to Australia's growing ties with Asia's giants – plus our proximity to the Indo-Pacific's vital sea lanes – provides a clear corrective to two false paths: the idea that it's really just about China and the United States, or that Australia can endlessly disperse its international attentions. For better or worse, our region has found us.