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Asian Century: A great national project?

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This post is part of the Australia-Indonesia relations debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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25 May 2012 10:45


This post is part of the Australia-Indonesia relations debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

I've found the responses to my Indonesia questions enlightening but I'm not completely satisfied. I think I need to sharpen my argument a little.

I'll start by asking a slightly different question: if all the steps recommended by Stephen Grenville, Fergus Hanson, Duncan Graham and Malcolm Cook are so obviously necessary (a 'no brainer', as Fergus puts it), what's taking us so long? Why can't we get this done?

In my earlier post I suggested one reason why Australia's relations with Indonesia are not as close as they should be: the human bias towards loss aversion. We fight harder to keep what we have than to get something new. And the narrative from those pushing a closer relationship with Indonesia is that we are missing an opportunity.

I'm pretty certain that's right, but it's harder to motivate people with that kind of argument than if you scare them with the threat of actual losses. And none of what I have read so far in this debate convinces me that the downside of maintaining the status quo is all that serious. We've had a cordial but not terribly close relationship with democratic Indonesia, and from a superficial perspective, it's served us tolerably well. Why not just leave it be and focus on more urgent problems?

Of course, there are other reasons the Indonesia relationship is anaemic. One is the Indonesians themselves, who are not always keen to embrace us. Another is a version of the standard lament from foreign policy wonks, which is that there is no constituency for change: there are no votes in Indonesia policy and the number of Australians who stand to benefit from closer relations is small and diffuse (at least in the short term). And previously I suggested a fourth reason: that our politicians are wary of the implied reproach carried in every call for Australians to get to know Asia better.

So can we frame the Indonesia-relations debate in 'loss aversion' terms? I think Hugh White has gone some way toward this by arguing that Australia risks drifting away from middle-powerdom to New Zealand-like small power status unless we wake up to the Asian Century. If that drift is accompanied by relative American decline in the region, then we face a future in which Australia is far less able to shape its own destiny and much more at the mercy of others.

But that's awfully abstract, and as post-World War II Britain shows, a sharp descent in world-power status does not have to be accompanied by lower living standards. In fact, both Britain and France show that the ride down can be very comfortable indeed. So although being a 'middle power' sounds nice, what's really in it for Australians?

Some might reply that this misses the point. It is precisely because foreign policy is such a marginal issue that there's no point bothering to try to convince the electorate. The key thing is to turn the political elites around. I suspect that's been true of a lot of foreign policy issues in the past, but if the claims made about the epochal change our region is undergoing are even half right, will that be enough this time around?

Perhaps I'm embarrassingly late to this revelation, but I'm now flirting with the conclusion that committing Australia fully to the Asian Century needs to be seen not simply as a policy task but as a great national project akin to multiculturalism, Aboriginal reconciliation or the deregulation of the national economy. It is a generational task, never fully completed, that goes to the core of our national identity.

And Indonesia is really the test case. If the political class and Australians generally can't be motivated to make some real commitment to our nearest and most important South East Asian neighbour, then what hope is there for our Asian push more generally?

(BTW, I haven't mentioned the responses from Dave McRae and Ariel Heryanto, but I am completely sympathetic to the idea that individuals and particularly students can be too utilitarian about this stuff; learning more about Indonesia is a very worthy end in itself. In fact, there is much to be said for the argument [made by my favourite political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott] that, properly speaking, university education should not be vocational at all. Rather, the purpose of such an education should be to immerse the student in a 'language' specific to a particular academic discipline, allowing them to make a contribution to the conversations taking place within and between such disciplines. It is these conversations that form the core of our civilisation.

That's a romantic and probably unrealistic view of the academy; Australian universities are now overwhelmingly vocational institutions which train students for careers. But even if universities could be brought around to this ideal, it does not follow that governments should have the same concerns as universities or as individuals wanting to achieve personal growth. By necessity, Australian foreign policy is utilitarian and focused on certain specific purposes. It always will be. For government, just being closer to Indonesia can never be an end in itself.)

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