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Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 10:26 | SYDNEY
Thursday 22 Feb 2018 | 10:26 | SYDNEY

2020 Summit: Asian giants and butcher's paper



19 April 2008 19:58

To write a vision for Australia’s future in the region requires sheets of butcher's paper and marker pens – just like every brainstorming conference you’ve ever attended. Add in the Beatles singing 'Come Together', and a Foreign Minister who can recite the running order of the 'Abbey Road' album. And looming through the mists out to 2020, the emerging giants of China and India. 

Welcome to 'Australia’s Future in the Region and the World' – one of ten streams running through the weekend summit at Parliament House.

The 2020 summit breaks a few political rules. One of the cynical sayings in Canberra is that no Government should hold an inquiry if it doesn't know what the result is going to be. The premise is that Governments are supposed to offer answers, not come asking open-ended questions. But a government in office just five months can afford, perhaps, to admit that it doesn't know everything. And when it comes to the foreign policy dimension, that's just as well, because there's really no way to answer the biggest question being posed.

Kevin Rudd went to that question in his opening address. Australia, he said, faces challenges of unprecedented complexity and intensity. The first issue he pointed to was climate change. The second was from Asia: 'The rise of China. The rise of India. The great economic and geopolitical transformation of the 21st Century which those two rises represent. Quite apart from the rolling structural vulnerabilities of an increasingly inter-dependant global economic order.'

The summit background paper on Australia's future in the region had the same theme on its first page. By 2020, China's population will be 1.4 billion, while India will be close to overtaking that with 1.3 billion people. At that point, the assertion is that the other five billion people in the world will have witnessed a shift in the balance of power to the new giants. In the words of the paper: 'Already relations among the current and emerging great powers are exercising powerful shaping effects on Australia’s region. As they continue to develop, China and India will exert powerful gravitational pulls on neighbouring countries.' Just think about that gravitational metaphor for a moment. If China and India are pulling in different directions, that doesn't make for harmony among the planets of the Asia Pacific.

The man chairing the regional session, Professor Michael Wesley, says that in the long term, India and China might not turn out to be status quo powers — that as they take centre stage beyond 2020 they might want to change the rules or hierarchy of the international game. Professor Wesley, in an interview before the summit, mused about the power options that will open for China and India: 

I strongly think that the evidence emerging at the moment is that China definitely is a status quo power and will be for several decades. Beyond that I'm not sure. India also seems to following to some extent a Chinese pattern. These two countries, I think their foremost priority in foreign policy is to ensure that everything is stable enough for them to continue to develop. Once they get to that developed, confident great power stage, I think things become less clear. What is less certain is how the other great powers are going to respond to that. I think that there is evidence that Russia is less and less a status quo great power. How much that will impact on us is an open question. Japan is really a mystery; it's very hard to predict how Japan will react to the continuing rise of China. And of course the way the United States reacts to the emergence of great power rivals, other great powers is another question that remains open.

When the 100 delegates to the foreign/defence policy stream of the summit gathered for the first time in their conference area (the Members Dining Room of Parliament) they were greeted by the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith. He promised that the aim was to 'let a thousand policy flowers bloom…all gratuitous advice will be gratefully accepted.' The Foreign Minister took some encouragement from the music being played at the start of the session: 'When they herded you in here, some of you old enough to remember it would have heard the dulcet tones of one of the all time great albums, “Abbey Road”, and playing the first track on side one, “Come Together”. Of course, there are some other memorable tracks on that album which reflect the spirit of this weekend – “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.”'

Complimented later on his ability to remember the running order of Abbey Road, Stephen Smith remarked that he’d recently been asked how he differed from Alexander Downer. The first example, according to the new Foreign Minister, is that Downer would never have listed Nick Cave as his favourite Australian singer.

Then the delegates confronted the standard torment of an Australian conference – 100 sheets of butcher's paper stuck to the windows with blue tac. Each was issued with a marker pen and instructed to put down a personal vision for Australia’s foreign and security policy. Then they were divided into twelve groups of eight people and each group had to try to merge its thoughts on to one piece of butcher's paper. By the afternoon, the process had been refined to a series of headings:

  • Terrorism and human rights
  • Nuclear weapons and Non Proliferation
  • Empowering and protecting women
  • Engaging India and China
  • Australia’s role in the Pacific
  • Good citizenship in regional and international institutions
  • Development assistance – new approaches
  • The role of Australia and other nations in our region
  • The US alliance – the demeanour of our diplomacy
  • Labour mobility – people-to-people contact; students; diaspora and migration
  • Language and cultural skills – being literate in our areas
  • ·Energy, Food and Resource Security
  • New threats to security: Pandemics, Transnational crime and Climate change.

The working instructions mean those headings will have to be further refined to produce only a handful of recommendations. Beyond the big Asian theme, the discussion often turned to the South Pacific, and ideas of community with the Islands (perhaps big 'C' Community).

The other idea that was making its way to the top of the heap was the need for Asian language skills — the conference zeitgeist and Australia's Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister seem to be pointing in the same direction. Even before the background paper for the delegates got to globalisation or global warming, it pounced on the fact that 85 percent of Australian students graduate from Year 12 without a second language. Less than three percent of university students study Asian subjects. Only about 400 university students enrolled to study Indonesian in 2006 and Australia has only 15 full-time academics working on Indonesia.

The Canberra talkfest will want more Australians to talk in more tongues. The soundtrack will come courtesy of The Beatles. At the close of the Saturday session, Michael Wesley commented that it had not been 'A Long and Winding Road', but it could yet be 'A Hard Day’s Night'. 

Photo of Parliament House, Canberra by Flickr user Fighting Tiger, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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