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Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper

28 Oct 2012 16:18

The PM has finished her speech and press conference at the Lowy Institute. You can read the Paper itself here and here are the Prime Minister's remarks.

My initial thoughts on the speech and the White Paper are below, with the obvious caveat that I often change my mind after a few days reflection. Also, I've so far only read parts of the 300-page White Paper.

  • The language of the speech and the White Paper is lofty and inspirational. The PM's speech is titled 'History asks great nations great questions', and the White Paper itself calls the Asian century 'a truly transformative period in our history' and 'a transformation as profound as any that have defined Australia throughout our history'. This was a big-picture speech, and the PM wants Australians to think big thoughts.
  • And despite the focus on Asia, this speech was pitched at Australia. Any prime ministerial speech is intended for myriad audiences, and a topic like this obviously carries a foreign policy element. But I got the impression Gillard was speaking foremost to Australians. There was no implied criticism or any references to insularity, and it was all carefully couched in safe language, but there was a sense that, for Australia to embrace the Asian century, Australians would need to change the way they think about the region:

Asia will become home to most of the world's middle class by as early as 2025. Not only becoming the world’s largest producer of goods and services; becoming the largest consumer of them. This is good news for Australia and it should drive a profound change in our thinking about our economic relationship with Asia.

Deep in our Australian culture are the assumptions that equate low wages with Asian labour. Not just in populist politics or at the front bar. These assumptions are never far behind debates about workplace flexibility and international competitiveness either. In the Asian Century, that changes.

  • The tone of the speech and White Paper is also determinedly optimistic, couched in the language of 'grasping opportunity'. In fact, the PM said Australia would embrace the Asian century '(n)ot because we face immediate crisis. Not because we are standing on a burning platform. But because we face unprecedented opportunity. Because we burn with ambition for our nation’s future.'
  • Here's where I would make my major early criticism about the speech and White Paper: there is very little sense of the risks of the Asian century.


  • The PM's description of Asia's explosive growth and the opportunities it offers was never accompanied by any warnings about the potential downsides, particularly the fact that Australia's relative influence in the region will decline as the region's developing economies continue their explosive growth.
    • In a sense, then, the PM avoided what we might call the Hugh White question, which asks whether Australia is prepared to do what it must in order to remain a middle power, or whether we will drift toward a more New Zealand-like small power status.
    • This is not only a military question about how much we're prepared to spend on defence, but also a population question (which will determine our economic size and the size of our tax base). From my scan of the White Paper, it altogether avoids any recommendations about Australia's population. Gillard herself avoided the 'big Australia' issue when it was put to her in the press conference.
  • The point which the media and Opposition will no doubt focus on is the lack of funding promised in the White Paper. The PM listed some quite modest immediate spending initiatives in her speech, including a plan to expand the Australia Awards scheme to allow more Australians to study in Asia, and vice versa, no doubt meant to blunt Coalition attacks that the Government has not embraced their new Colombo Plan initiative.
    • The White Paper commits Australia to modestly increasing its diplomatic representation in the region, but there's no overall funding boost for DFAT.
  • The PM was at her feistiest when it came to media criticism. In both the speech and press conference, she referred to the heavy media emphasis on economic news from the US and Europe. But she wanted to see less of Angela Merkel emerging from meetings looking 'harried and stressed', and more economic news from China, Japan, Indonesia and elsewhere in the region.

We'll have much more on this topic over coming days and weeks. Stay tuned and send us your thoughts on blogeditor@lowyinstitute.org.


29 Oct 2012 09:26

The relationship with Indonesia is one of six the Government determines as crucial to Australia's future in the new Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. The priority placed on Indonesia mirrors regular Government statements about the importance of bilateral ties and the need to further advance the relationship. But on a first read, with the same caveats as Sam, I'm not convinced the White Paper contributes much to doing so.

There are two key problems. One is the stance of the paper itself on Australian policy to date. That a White Paper was commissioned suggests that a sea-change was required to take advantage of the opportunities that the Asian Century will present; the paper itself speaks of the need for a new mindset.

Belying this, the paper is generally bullish on the status quo; many of the policies it announces to achieve its 25 national objectives by 2025 are existing policies.

Second, where the paper does set new goals, it is short on specifics, and does not make specific resource commitments. For example, the paper states the objective of all school students having access to one of four priority Asian languages, namely Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese. But it does not commit specific resources over a more politically relevant time frame to achieve this goal, nor state even indicative targets for how many students should actually take up these studies and gain proficiency.

On people-to-people ties too, on first read the paper appears to lack a clear and specific commitment of new resources. For example, the expansion of the working holiday visa program to Indonesia to 1000 places was already announced in July. Nor is it clear that 12,000 Australia Awards over five years (presumably 2400 per year) represents an increase on present levels, with 2784 such awards allocated to the region in 2011. On diplomatic ties, a consulate in eastern Indonesia will be established only when circumstances allow, with the PM making the qualification during her launch speech that these are fiscally constrained times.

Photo by Flickr user Julia Gillard.


29 Oct 2012 10:34

What is there not to like about the White Paper on the Asian Century? It is above all a feel-good document: historically we have done well in our relationships with Asia; we have the advantage of proximity; a large component of our population is of Asian descent; we are well equipped with relevant skills; we have various attributes and resources that Asia needs; and our economic track-record is one many would like to emulate.

If anyone didn't already know that we have the good fortune to be next to the most economically vibrant region in the world, this document sets out the full measure of our luck. In a world of miserable growth rates and dysfunctional politics in advanced countries and basket-case failed states among the developing countries, Asia represents a uniformly positive picture. Thanks to its past growth, it is now large enough to cast a halo of economic opportunities over any country that happens to be nearby.

All we have to do is keep on this same path: honing our economic credentials, tweaking our diplomacy and enlarging the exchanges of young people. We'll ride this Asian wave for decades to come. [fold]

This is the nature of the White Paper and it's difficult to know what else it could have been or done in the circumstances. It would be amazing if the authors had been able to come up with a radically new viewpoint: we've been thinking about these issues for decades. Nor is there room for dramatic new policy initiatives, in a budget-constrained world.

The risks, problems and trade-offs are equally well known, and it would cast a gloomy shadow over this positive outlook if the document dwelt in detail on all the things that might go wrong, the policy dilemmas and the delicate paths our diplomacy will have to tread.

It would have been unhelpful, for example, to go deeply into the vexed security issues raised by the Hugh White debate. It would be equally unhelpful to agonise too much over the challenge of straddling our relationship with the US (our historical best friend) and China (our biggest trading partner). If in the past we have tended to view Asia through the US prism, this is not the place to sort out whether the future lies with Asia alone or with the Asia Pacific. We know without reminder, for instance, that we have little to offer on issues such as South China Sea disputes. We know we will often be treading on eggshells to keep a balance between Japan and China.

Even confining ourselves to economics, focusing on the positive and downplaying the difficulties has some attraction. The Doha Round trade negotiations can rate a positive mention without the need to say that it is effectively dead. The Trans-Pacific Partnership can be held up as a high quality trade model without mentioning that the bar is set so high that our main trading partner will not be able to join in the foreseeable future.

Of course we can still talk trade with China through the regional arrangements. Regional integration is easy to talk about but hard to implement, partly because China is an elephant in the canoe, hard to accommodate because it is so big, confident, powerful and ready to right perceived historical wrongs. But why fret about these problems when Australia, as a late arrival in these regional arrangements, can be no more than a bit player in resolving these difficulties? Why spend time lamenting that we were slow to join the ASEAN sphere and are not part of the Chiang Mai Initiative, the basis of much regional economic dialogue?

From Australia's internal policy perspective, there are unresolved issues in foreign investment. China understandably looks to Australia to provide an important element of resource security, but if this is given in the form of foreign ownership, the scale of the Chinese resource-security objectives and the uni-dimensional resources focus will run up against domestic sensitivities. With resource policy spread between federal and state levels, there are many opportunities to offend foreigner investors while at the same time selling our birthright for a mess of pottage. But the White Paper is not the place to resolve this.

When it comes to our close neighbor Indonesia, we are still groping to find substantive dialogue issues which are not tension riddled crisis resolution, whether it is boat people or drug convictions. We know that Papua is waiting to destabilise the relationship in one way or another. The live cattle debacle was a reminder that mutual incomprehension still characterises this relationship.

Australian business still finds Indonesia an uncomfortable environment. The inhibiting travel advisory has finally gone, but now business has to worry that the Australian legal system will prosecute them for business practices which are the norm not just in Indonesia, but just about everywhere in Asia. There seems no way to raise the tone and quantity of journalistic reporting.

Long ago, wise heads developed the view that the best we could hope for is that there would be enough ballast in the diplomatic relationship to see us through these tribulations. What more can be offered?

If the White Paper sounds complacent, there is certainly a realistic prospect that Australia will be borne along in the slipstream of this historically unprecedented burst of economic growth that began with Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in the 1960s and still has far to run in the unfinished growth stories of China, India, Indonesia and our other Asian neighbours. It will be up to others to explore the detail of what might go wrong, and what more could be done to smooth this ride.

Photo by Flickr user go_nils.


29 Oct 2012 11:49

Tony Healy writes:

While I commend the PM for the ambition in her speech, I think she misses the point.

The core cultural expertise we need over the next 50 years if we are to maintain the respect of Asian nations and prosper will be in using science. Our English heritage has given us a slight disdain for science and engineering. Germans and Europeans don’t share that disdain, and Asian nations certainly don’t. Asian leaders are much more likely to have science or engineering education. The dramatic growth of Singapore, Taiwan and now China shows the value of that culture.

Most of our political leaders don’t even know which science and engineering professions are responsible for what, let alone being able to assess important issues themselves. Our corporate world is better in some areas, such as mining, but poor in areas such as information technology. This is an area where we will be eaten alive.


29 Oct 2012 14:57

Taste the Asian Century White Paper from the perspectives of process and politics.

The machinery stuff (the process) is always interesting in Canberra, and usually revealing. If this had been the Henry Review instead of a White Paper it would have been bigger, bolder, broader, and almost certainly more adventurous. A lot of what Henry and his team originally drafted got cut because this was not to be Dr Ken's take on the future but a Gillard Government statement of P-O-L-I-C-Y approved by Cabinet.

A White Paper is a government nailing itself to P-O-L-I-C-Y, or vice versa. That is why the established process has long been to do the review or Green Paper first, to shoot for the high spots before retreating to the safer realms of the formal White Paper which eventually follows. The old process reflected an understanding that good policy takes time and argument and even a bit of trial and error. New politics disdains such stuff — the Government must always know the answers and be uniformly on-message.

The 273 submissions to the inquiry will be of continuing use as a snapshot of Australia having a discussion with itself about Asia. The ambition and sense of adventure in those submissions hint at how much wider a Henry review could have roamed if not constrained by the need to be P-O-L-I-C-Y. The White Paper walks some of its own talk by offering up translations of its Foreword in Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese. The Executive Summary is already in Chinese with the other five translations pending.

One other point where process has changed is that parliament has dropped away. White Papers used to be important documents that were presented first to parliament. No more. Kevin Rudd released his Defence White Paper on a Navy ship in Sydney Harbour because it made for great pictures.

In the continual football match between Minders United and Westminster City, the Minders just scored another win. Releasing the document in Sydney was a considerable coup for the Lowy Institute, but not so good for the standing of parliament.

With this observation, we shift from process to the politics of the White Paper. [fold]
The White Paper gives Julia Gillard a big bit of Asia policy that does not have Kevin Rudd's name on it, nor does it reflect his considerable foreign policy intellect. That, bluntly, was always part of its political purpose. 

One reason the Asian Century process had to be run by the Prime Minister's Department was that it could never have been given to a Foreign Affairs Department headed by K Rudd. Minders United saw one benefit of releasing the White Paper at the weekend as the chance to mount a sizeable counter attack to the raid by a Rudd stalwart, Maxine McKew, who was releasing her book on the regicide. Peter Hartcher captures exactly one element of the politics of the White Paper launch:

Knowing the publication date for McKew's book weeks in advance, the government has decided to deliver its long-delayed Asian Century white paper on Sunday. This is transparently an effort to drown McKew's accusatory voice, to stop the story rolling into the new parliamentary sitting week. Gillard plans simply to roll over McKew.

Not all political considerations are so dastardly. In the good-policy-can-be-good-politics category it is noteworthy how the White Paper places education at the centre of much of its discussion. Remember that when Julia Gillard made her famous comment that she had no feel for foreign policy it was to make the contrasting point that her real passion was for education.

Framing the Asian Century as one that will be won in the classrooms is to shift the game onto Gillard's ground. The political drumbeat from Gillard is that she is getting on with governing and some of that drumming is getting through. 

The Australian newspaper had three headline dot points across the top of its front page today. Two of them were from the White Paper ('Language option for all children' and 'Hawke-Keating legacy invoked'). The third point was what truly mattered for Minders United: 'Newspoll: Labor draws level'; the latest opinion poll has the government tied 50-50 with the Opposition in the two-party preferred vote. One year out from the election, this Government thinks it is now in with a chance.

The political drumbeat sets the rhythm for policy. So building on these elements of process and policy, the next column will consider how the Asian Century White Paper stacks up as policy. Or, to use the politico-speak common at Minders United: What's the vision? Give us the narrative!

Photo courtesy of Lowy Institute/Sydney Heads.


30 Oct 2012 08:58

Two significant reports have been released in the past two days which, if their recommendations are followed, should have a considerable impact on the health of Australia's diplomatic network: Sunday's White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century and the report released yesterday by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Australia's Overseas Representation – Punching Below Our Weight? The content of the latter makes the question mark redundant.


First, the White Paper. It recognises that, while Australia faces growing competition in the region, our level of diplomatic representation is less than that of comparable countries and has been falling over the past decade.

To address this deficit, the White Paper makes the categorical claim that 'Australia's diplomatic network will have a larger footprint across Asia'. But it is far less categorical about the specifics, stating that 'when circumstances allow, (Australia will) open a full embassy in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) and consulates in Shenyang (China), Phuket (Thailand) and in eastern Indonesia'.

Referring to the considerable body of work the Institute has produced over the past four years, including frequently on this blog, on the health of Australia's diplomatic network, Michael Fullilove asked the Prime Minister here at the Institute on Sunday: 'How big a national priority is it for us to bulk up our network of embassies and posts around the world, especially in our region?' The Prime Minister's answer: [fold]

This is an important national priority, there's only so much money and we are in a time of fiscal consolidation...you do have to take your place around the expenditure review committee table and engage in a bit of cut and thrust, but this, for us, over time, I think is a very important priority; we do ask our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through our posts around the world to do some amazing work for us, and that is going to grow and we need it to grow.

So, a big priority, but small evidence of a sense of urgency or budget imperative to make the dream a reality.

The second major report is that of Joint Standing Committee (Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee) on Australia's overseas representation, the culmination of 13 months' work by the sub-committee and launched yesterday, just one day after the Asian Century White Paper.

In language far less equivocal than the PM's, Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Nick Champion MP summed up the inquiry's findings: 'Australia's diplomatic network is seriously deficient and does not reflect Australia's true international standing.' 

Quoting our submissions to the inquiry and adopting our recommendations in Diplomatic Disrepair, Mr Champion called for an increase of at least 20 diplomatic posts to the network's existing 95, to build an overseas network far closer to the OECD average of 133 missions distributed across the 193 nations of the UN. To achieve this, the report cleverly recommends indexing DFAT's budget to a fixed proportion of GDP (a proportion which has been falling over the past quarter of a century), to bring Australia's diplomatic network to a level commensurate with its standing in the G20 and OECD.

Apart from this bold, and for us, long-awaited, call for increased support for Australia's principal agency for the nation's international engagement, the report makes some constructive recommendations to address the well-known problems confronting the indefatigable Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

  • Examine and articulate Government's long-term goals for its whole of government representation overseas in a white paper which outlines the value and benefits of the overseas network, sets out the criteria for establishing new posts and national priorities for expanding the network, and raises the public profile of the work and value of Australia's diplomatic network.
  • Introduce practical measures (like fees or levies) to help fund the burgeoning consular load.    
  • Broaden and deepen the contacts and relationships between DFAT and Austrade and Australian business to foster better understanding and provide better assistance.
  • Address the issue of effective global distribution of trade representation (by Austrade and the various State and territory trade offices around the world) by placing within COAG's remit the task of reviewing the most effective location and coordination of State and Commonwealth trade representations to best serve the national interest.
  • Open a new post in East Java (as per the Asian Century White Paper recommendation). The Committee report also welcomes the newly-announced post in Senegal and reviews in detail the myriad proposals for new posts, but refrains from recommending other post openings without a rigorous assessment by DFAT and the proposed diplomacy white paper.
  • Finally, in a comprehensive set of recommendations which are probably solely attributable to the formidable body of work by former Lowy Institute Research Fellow Fergus Hanson, the report recommends an Office of Ediplomacy to bring DFAT's use of new media platforms into the 21st century and the immediate refurbishment of the often clunky Australian embassy websites.

So, the White Paper is, as my colleague Rory Medcalf succinctly observed yesterday, bold on vision but short on funding, while the Joint Standing Committee Inquiry report is just plain bold.

Let's hope that, together, the two reports will finally draw attention to Australia's neglected, overstretched and underfunded diplomatic service, and elicit a long-overdue and concrete commitment to rebuilding Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade so it can serve Australia's interests properly.

Photo by Flickr user timtom.ch.


30 Oct 2012 10:15

The contrast between how broadsheet and tabloid newspapers covered the launch of the Asian Century White Paper on Sunday is telling. The Australian gave it saturation coverage and rolled out its big columnists to provide analysis. The Sydney Morning Herald also provided front-page coverage and considered analysis.

The Daily Telegraph, Sydney's largest circulation paper, relegated coverage to a single 1/4-page story on p.10, next to an equally sized one about the family pet. The pet story got a colour photo.

The Asian Century White Paper is the latest and most comprehensive embrace by Australia's political and wider elite of Australia's unquestioned membership in Asia and the need for Australia to change accordingly. The biggest problem with this assertion is not the difficulties of the policy reforms mentioned in the White Paper. It is that a majority of Australians refuse to join in this embrace.

The 2010 Lowy Institute Poll asked Australians which region Australia belonged to — it was a dead heat between Asia, the Pacific and none. Clearly, broadsheet editors think their readers belong to the Asia minority while tabloid editors seem to think differently about their readers.

Photo by Flickr user lonely radio.


30 Oct 2012 11:30

Dr Andrew Carr is an Associate Lecturer in Strategic and Defence Studies at the ANU and a former Assistant Editor of The Interpreter.

While the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper is largely focused on economics, there is a chapter on security which may give us some insight into the promised 2013 Defence White Paper. It is moderate on China, views regional defence spending as a function of modernisation rather than arms racing, and embraces a broad, regionally focused conception of security.

The most notable insight of the paper is the language on China's rise. Where the 2009 Defence White Paper struck a note of concern, the Asian Century White Paper is welcoming. Here is the 2009 Defence White Paper (p.34):

A major power of China's stature can be expected to develop a globally significant military capability befitting its size. But the pace, scope and structure of China's military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern if not carefully explained, and if China does not reach out to others to build coincidence regarding its military plans. 

Now here is the Asian Century paper (p.228):

We accept that China’s military growth is a natural, legitimate outcome of its growing economy and broadening interests. It is important that China and others in the region explain to their neighbours the pace and scope of their military modernisation, to build confidence and trust.

This is an important though expected shift, given the criticism the '09 paper attracted, both from China and at home. The Government's views might not have changed, but it has learnt to better conceal them. There is a stark phrase on p.229 that '(t)his is not a world in which anything like a containment policy can work or be in our national interests'. This is no doubt a message Australia hopes is read in Washington as much as Beijing. [fold]

Also notable, though more consistent with the 2009 Defence White Paper, is the depiction of the significant military spending increases in our region as part of a modernisation of Asia's militaries, rather than part of an arms race. This is the mainstream view among scholars and commentators, given most of the defence spending seems driven by domestic factors such as economic growth and increasing capacity, rather than by high levels of international tension.

While the South China Sea has been a source of increasing competition and acrimony, it will be some years before we can be sure this has led directly to new arms purchases. For now, it seems the Australian Government is maintaining its 2009 view that the region is modernising, rather than getting into an arms race. I'd recommend this lecture by Geoffrey Till if readers want to go into the debates and arguments about an arms race in Asia.

Finally, the Asian Century White Paper takes a broad view of security, with multiple mentions of cooperative or 'sustainable' security. It doesn't quite endorse Paul Keating's famous line that Australia should seek security in Asia rather than from it, but it does argue Australia should continue to promote a 'region of sustainable security in which habits of cooperation are the norm'. This is not just about the US-China relationship, but also non-traditional security challenges such as terrorism, piracy, criminal networks and the environment.

The concept of human security is also strongly embraced, featuring in one of the national objectives (#21), which should please the authors of a compelling new book on the integration of human security into Australia's foreign policy.

We're told the Defence White Paper will 'set out in more detail the role we will play with regard to defence and security throughout our region'. If Australia truly is to find its place in the Asian Century, then ensuring Defence White Paper supports the economic and foreign policy goals of the Asian Century White Paper will be an important step.

Photo courtesy of Lowy Institute/Sydney Heads.


30 Oct 2012 13:35

Dr John Blaxland is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

The recently released Australia in the Asian Century White Paper is excellent, as far as it goes. But one missing component is a discussion about the Australian mindset. After all, the very premise of the paper is that we Australians are different and need to work to be more welcome in the regional club, where Westerners have traditionally been seen as colonial interlopers.

To engage with Asia we need to know who we are and where we have come from. Too often Australians venture into Asia with a brash, informal and culturally unaware approach that does much to undermine prospective relations. Australians try to fit in, but it often falls flat. Our informality and directness (which we consider one of our strengths) blinds us to the significance in Asia of form, appearances, and 'face'.

We pride ourselves in dealing directly with the function or the substance, paying lip service (if that) to form. But many of our regional counterparts see the form as much more significant than the function.

Gift exchanges and reception formalities, where relations are established and rituals followed, absorb a disproportionate amount of time and effort, as far as we are concerned. To many in Asia, however, our directness is seen as culturally insensitive and arrogant, and many are uncomfortable with our disdain for formalities, seeing it as betraying a lack of understanding or respect. Not surprisingly, some see us as philistines. So, what to do about it? [fold]

Engaging with Asia means understanding a range of cultural factors. But if we want to understand them, we need first to understand ourselves. So who are we? Where do we come from?

We are primarily a European transplanted community with growing minorities of ethnic and religious groups not directly associated with that heritage. Essentially, Australia is part of the English speaking world sometimes described as the 'Anglosphere', with stronger ties to countries like Britain, New Zealand, the US and Canada than most of our immediate neighbours. Our laws, customs, political system, language and colonial history are intimately tied to our European (principally British and Irish) ancestry.

Australia aspires to be a 'fair, multicultural and cohesive society', but it does so building on the foundations of a transplanted society influenced by a Judaeo-Christian world view, washed through the reformation, the Enlightenment, European revolutions, modernism and post-modernism. Life might not necessarily be nasty, brutish and short any more, but it is only a once-off. You either go to heaven or hell or just cease to be, depending on your worldview. Few of us seriously think we will come back again reincarnated.

To cap it off, we Australians have venerated the idea of mateship, an egalitarian notion that many outsiders see as the down-under form of cronyism linked to corruption and exclusion of foreigners.

Armed with this self awareness, we need to learn more about the worldviews of our neighbours. In mainland Southeast Asia, for instance, Buddhism is a profoundly influential factor in shaping people's thinking about their place in the world and ours. But few Australians understand the significance that karma and reincarnation play in shaping day-to-day thinking. Some Australians dismiss this religiosity as a veneer, but in fact it runs deep and catches most secular Aussies by surprise.

Similarly, in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and southern Philippines, Islam infuses much of the cultural life. The world of Dar al-Harb (the abode of war, often associated with the West) and Dar al-Islam (the abode of peace, or the Islamic world) resonate strongly for Muslims but sounds like a caricature to post-modern Western-thinking Australians. That cultural understanding (or lack of it) has a spillover effect on business and education. It is important for us to understand the differences and, informed by that understanding, tailor our engagement with cultural awareness and sensitivity.

As we look to emphasise Asian languages and cultures in our education as part of the White Paper's direction, we should be mindful of who we are and where we came from and how the differences in our cultures create rub points. Our neighbors are under no illusions. As we seek to engage and become more integrated into the region, neither should we be.

Photo by Flickr user Mark Fischer.


31 Oct 2012 13:44

Dr Peter Dean is a Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the ANU.

One of the first pieces of commentary after Prime Minister Julia Gillard launched the Asian Century White Paper at the Lowy Institute on Sunday was an interview by ABC News 24 with Professor Bates Gill, Head of the US Studies Centre. Professor Gill argued that the US is only a 'minor player' in the White Paper. I beg to disagree.

During the launch, the Prime Minster reinforced the White Paper's list of the six most important countries in the region for Australia: China, India, Japan, Indonesia, the US and South Korea. A rather crude content analysis of the document, based on the number of mentions each country receives, reveals the US as the fifth most prominent country. To be exact, the US gets 166 mentions (this includes references to United States and US). China leads the way with 348 mentions, India 270, Japan 196, Indonesia 181 and South Korea with 124.

But such crude metrics tell only part of the story. What is important is that, as Peter Hartcher has reported, this White Paper is aimed at an Australian audience, not an Asian or a US one. And while there is always more to be done maintaining and strengthening any bilateral relationship after over a century of business and cultural exchanges, serving together in coalitions in the First and Second World Wars, having a formal alliance for over 60 years and a free trade agreement for the past eight, we can probably forgive the Government for thinking most Australians have a reasonably good handle on the importance of our relationship with the US.

Clearly, the Government thought it needed to focus the community on countries where we lack the type of sophisticated relationship we have with the US; relationships that will be critically important for our future, such as with China, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. [fold]

Yet while the US only ranked fifth in my crude analysis, those 166 mentions are rather impressive when you consider the type and context. The US is mostly mentioned in terms of trade and security. In fact it dominates the security elements of the White Paper. The White Paper notes that Asia's rising economies were 'major beneficiaries of the open global trading system established under United States leadership after World War II' and that the security guarantees provided by the US to its key allies in the region, 'especially Japan and South Korea, and the development of an effective working relationship between Washington and Beijing after 1972, provided strategic (and business) confidence that helped frame and support the region's economic development'.

The core argument for the importance of the US to Australian and regional security comes on p.231:

We consider that a strong and consistent United States presence in the region will be as important in providing future confidence in Asia's rapidly changing strategic environment as it has been in the past. We will continue to support US engagement in the region and its rebalancing to the Asia–Pacific, including through deepening our defence engagement with the US and regional partners.

Of all the countries mentioned in this document, it allocates the US a central and pivotal role, not only in Asia's past, but also for its future.

Significantly though, the White Paper does not take a wholly sycophantic view of the US. It also acknowledges that while 'our alliance with the United States remains as strong as ever', Asia's continued growth won't occur in a 'strategic vacuum'. Stable relations among the 'major powers in Asia and the Pacific – China, India, Indonesia, Japan and the United States – will remain fundamental to prosperity and security in the region and will require sustained effort'.

One of the most interesting lines in the White Paper is the statement 'this is not a world in which anything like a containment policy can work or be in our national interests'. As Andrew Carr pointed out in his post, this is a clear message that 'Australia hopes is read in Washington as much as Beijing'.

In the end, the US is not a minor player. Australia has already chosen the US as its preferred security partner for the Asian Century and the White Paper reflects the critical role this relationship will play in the future. The emphasis on countries other than the US is about focusing attention on other partners and rising powers and the need to engage many of them in ways that reflect the strength of the US-Australian bilateral relationship. 

Photo Auspic/Prime Minister's Office.


1 Nov 2012 09:23

Australia is not alone in thinking seriously about the implications of the Asian century. Discussions at the Lowy Institute's PNG New Voices conference last week debated Papua New Guinea's international choices and place in the Asian century.

The participants at our conference had clearly not only grasped the historical significance of the rise of Asia and in particular China, they were also seized of the trade and investment opportunities on offer and the development lessons to be learned from the experience of a number of Asian countries. They were keen to learn more from an increasingly complex web of relationships with Asian partners.

This was interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, controversy over investment from countries such as China and Malaysia, which in the past has been manifested through violence, appears to have morphed into acceptance and eagerness to do business with Asia – at least amongst a younger generation of Papua New Guineans.

Secondly, Australia is still PNG's pre-eminent trade and investment partner even if the bilateral relationship is more often seen as dominated by aid. According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, Australia has a 27.9% share of PNG's exports to the world, while Australian products have a 42.1% share of PNG's import market. According to Chinese government sources, China-PNG bilateral trade was US$1.265 billion in 2011, an almost ten-fold increase since 2001. China is PNG's second largest trading partner but Australia-PNG bilateral trade is still way ahead, at A$5.98 billion in 2011.

Yet Chinese (and increasingly other Asian) economic interactions, as well as the development experience of Asian nations, appear to occupy a higher profile than Australian trade and investment or Australian models of development in the consciousness of young Papua New Guineans. [fold]

This thinking may just reflect the educated mindset of the small sample of participants at our conference. But if we consider that this group could very well be the future leaders of the PNG, the influence Australia is accustomed to exerting in Papua New Guinea may not be as durable as it seems.

The Australian Government's White Paper did not make mention of Papua New Guinea or other Pacific Islands. The economic status and tiny populations of Pacific Islands (PNG aside) tends to exclude them from Australian thinking about the rise of Asia. PNG's economy is forecast to grow at a respectable 7.7% in 2012, comparable to growth rates in the emerging economies of Asia. Its population of 6.7 million is also growing fast. Like Australia, PNG is positioning itself to build on Asian interest in its resources.

The White Paper was written for an Australian audience but Australia is also well placed to exchange ideas with an emerging and engaged audience in Papua New Guinea on the challenges of forging a prosperous future in the Asian century.

Photo by Flickr user 350.org.


1 Nov 2012 12:43

Below, a comment from Alex Jones, but first, Sinclaire Prowse, a postgraduate student at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney, writes:

An under addressed topic of discussion on the Asian Century White Paper is the implications it holds for the future of Australia's relationship with the US. The paper describes a grand vision towards strengthening the relationship between Australia and China in a variety of sectors and its provisions seem a natural and necessary exercise for Australia to undertake. But to what extent should Washington be worried about this compromising our deep security alliance?

Although very few in Washington will read it, those who do will most likely be perplexed. It only mentions the continuing role of the US in the Asia Pacific on a handful of occasions and it is striking how minute the role of the US is perceived to be, in particular with regards to security. Considering the original draft had to be re-written to include a greater reference of the US, this isn't surprising.


This will be viewed as a relatively inconsequential document for those in Washington but it seems intrinsically necessary that the US take documents such as these more seriously. If the US would undertake a similar effort in order to understand its role in the region, the scope and scale of their role would be accessible to both a domestic and international audience and it would give them a much greater understanding into the quick progression occurring in the region.

Alex Jones is studying for a Masters in Political Economy at Sydney University:

The White Paper is more than a road map for Australia’s engagement with Asian in the coming decades, it is something for our neighbours to mull over and take note of what role Australia might play. For Australian boys and girls, the language policy is a positive step but only half the picture.

The United States' engagement with Asia, particularly China, remains firmly focused inwards on the security and economic implications for its own superpower status. Strategic alliances splinter trust across the region while one can only imagine what Mitt Romney would do to US-Sino relations if elected. The US does not have a clear plan for the region as a whole and its relationship with China is a lot more tense than the surface might suggest. In the rest of the West Europe is currently far too overwhelmed with local issues to be making coherent external approaches.

Meanwhile African and South American relations have been driven by China's economy but no countries from either continent have made significant attempts to spread this connection across Asia. Also the future of China's ties are yet to be fully tested by Africa's stability and the tendency by some South American countries to follow the path nationalisation.

Apart from a putting in writing the broad direction that Australian education and industry was already facing, this is a billboard advertisement to grab the attention of Asia's leaders. No other country has taken such steps to produce such a positive and inclusive blueprint.

The language plan has certainly drawn the most attention. Putting aside questions about funding and eventual uptake, the languages selected show Australia wants to embrace the region as a whole, but those with the most potential have been chosen. Mandarin was always a given but that Japanese remains shows that the Paper's authors want to keep the old ties. Despite a couple decades of little growth, it is still a well-developed market that needs to be served. It is a pity Korean could not also be included as its potential for Australia is arguably on par with Japan. Including Indonesian and Hindi are big statements to show commitment beyond China and old friends. Australian relations with both Indonesia and India need more attention before benefits can be secured, in fact, some areas are in need of fundamental repair. Inclusion of these two languages is a positive step towards in a renewed direction. 

Language is vital but delivering an 'Asian-literate' generation still lacks an important element; much can be learnt from the region's history. Relations between Asia's big three economies of Japan, South Korea and China are extremely complex and understanding these, amongst other, historical influences will lead to a better appreciation of the factors affecting trading patterns, security and development in the region. Not that European history and Australia's links to that history should be forgotten, but Asian history needs to include more than a brief history of China, the Korean war and Vietnam war.

The White Paper is Australia's effort to be taken as an important future partner. But for Australian boys and girls, talking the talk is one thing, knowing the history will provide a complete understanding of the region.


1 Nov 2012 13:56

Associate Professor Michele Ford is Director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre.

It's great to see Indonesia identified as one of five key Asian nations, and Indonesian one of four priority languages, in the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, not least because I teach Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney and have a longstanding professional (and personal) commitment to that country.

But, having read the paper, I couldn't help but wonder where the rest of Southeast Asia was when it came to Australia's blueprint for the Asian Century.

Southeast Asia and ASEAN get plenty of air time in the background sections of the White Paper. A number of individual countries are mentioned repeatedly for their (potential for) rapid economic growth. We hear of the deep regional engagement of Australian companies like BlueScope Steel and Linfox, and of professional associations like the CPA.

The fact that Southeast Asia accounts for most Asian tourism to Australia is also highlighted, as is Vietnam's and Malaysia's place in the top five source countries of international students. We read about the flow of permanent migrants not only from Southeast Asia to Australia, but from Australia to Southeast Asia. Reference is also made to historical and contemporary flows of refugees from Vietnam and Myanmar.

But it's not all about business and various forms of human mobility. We also learn about the importance of Southeast Asia as a destination for our football teams, the very active involvement of Southeast Asian artists in South Australia's OzAsia Festival, and the influence of Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine on Australian food.

This is all well and good, but how developed is Australia's agenda for the 'other countries' of Southeast Asia? [fold]

They get a gander in the section on defence and security engagement, and Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines are identified as 'active regional powers'. The White Paper notes the conclusion of the Malaysia-Australia Free Trade Agreement and plans to negotiate similar agreements with Singapore and Thailand, along with Australia's ongoing commitment to working with the ILO and other multilateral bodies on issues such as sustainable development and fair work.

Vietnamese and Thai get a mention in a list of 'other' languages to be supported, and we are led to believe that Radio Australia will continue to broadcast in Vietnamese, Khmer and Burmese, as well as in Indonesian. Malaysia and Thailand join Indonesia in the list of countries with which Australia has formal working holiday arrangements, and the report signals the Government's plan to establish a full embassy in Phuket and a permanent ambassador to the ASEAN Secretariat.

Ultimately, however, I have a sinking feeling that this shopping list of initiatives lacks the kind of comprehensiveness and coherence needed if we are to truly engage with the complex and diverse place that is Southeast Asia. The language of the White Paper has been described in this blog as 'lofty and inspirational'. But where Southeast Asia is concerned, I was left wondering what the vision actually is.

Photo by Flickr user adaptorplug.


2 Nov 2012 10:44

Australia has shifted a long way beyond the comforting promise that it could engage with Asia without having to change itself. 

The Asian Century White Paper enshrines the understanding that much in Australia must be transformed. The White Paper is a map identifying 25 important roads with some routes only lightly sketched. Or, if you like, see it as a menu that doesn't give the price of the meals. The problems of process and politics explain some of those shortcomings, but a policy that doesn't account for the pesos is deeply problematic.

The White Paper does not proclaim a new era so much as mark another important moment in The Great Asia Project that Australia has been consciously and consistently pursing for 40 years. John Howard identified the start date for The Great Asia Project as 1972: 'For more than 40 years, every serious political leader in Australia has been committed to the belief that close engagement and collaboration with our Asian neighbours was critical to Australia's future.'

The point about 'every serious political leader' is a notable one which I'll come back to. On 'engagement and collaboration', the White Paper offers plenty of data on what has been achieved in the first four decades of The Great Asia Project; the journey from now is as much about what must happen inside Australia as it is about dealing with Asia.

To summarise the argument in a few words: for Australia, Asia is near, not far. We must be in, not out. Australia must be more than engaged, it must be committed (drawing on the old joke that, in the production of bacon and eggs, the hen is engaged but the pig is committed!). [fold]

The White Paper is the biggest possible policy statement of the 'all change for Asia' position. This is a shift beyond the old political orthodoxy or implicit common ground in the arguments between Howard and Keating, who both thought Asia would mostly love us as we are. Howard famously saw no need to choose between our history and geography. Keating embraced geography over history but, apart from the need to ditch the monarchy, his mantra was about Australia integrating, not transforming.

Now the discussion is about what Australia must do within itself to adjust to Asia, as well as what Asia is doing to Australia; no longer is it merely a matter of what Australia can do for Asia.

The White Paper starts with the words, 'Asia's rise is changing the world', and then goes on to talk about all the ways Australia is going to have to shift to deal with the 'staggering scale and pace' of these 'profound' developments. That is a profoundly domestic document (well suited to Julia Gillard) as it ranges over the Asian impact on Australia's public service and executive suites and schools. Thus, domestic policies will have to supply the real details of many of the 25 national objectives on the White Paper's map or menu. The forthcoming education funding model, for instance, is going to carry quite an Asian Century load.

One interesting element in the responses to the White Paper is in all the ways the dogs didn't bark. The barking we have heard has been mostly about the lack of dollars, not about the direction.

Malcolm Cook remarks on the limited coverage by the tabloids. The tabloids are, indeed, important attack dogs because of their finely tuned populist noses. The idea of teaching Asian languages to every Australian kid did not, apparently, look like red meat to the redtops. Nothing to bark at there; back to rising electricity prices.

Malcolm's worry is that the tabloid lack of interest indicates Australians just don't want to think about Asia. Perhaps, but maybe many Australians, like the tabloids, didn't see much to get excited about: Asia is important? Yeah, got that memo a while ago. Asia is paying the national bills? Knew that. Just hope we don't have to get our heads around Mandarin to help the kids with the homework. Asia is our future? Tick! Get back to us when you've worked out the details. The people expect the polity to do the policy particulars.

In all the various reactions to the White Paper, there have been a lot of 'Yes, but...' responses (Yes, but where are the dollars?) and even been a bit of 'Yes, of course'. But there haven't been any vehement NO responses.

The Great Asia Project is the agreed position of every significant Australia political party. There is no anti-Asia element on the left, right or middle of Oz politics. Compare and contrast the Oz position with Britain, where Euro-scepticism amounting to Europhobia is a throbbing element of mainstream politics. In the geography-history stakes, many Poms would like to veto geography and escape back into history; that is not an option that has had much of a run in Oz politics for decades.

To use John Howard's phrase, 'every serious political leader in Australia' for four decades has been pushing The Great Asia Project and the effort has already changed the nation. From immigration policy to tariff levels, this country has been getting ready for the Asian Century for quite a while.

Julia Gillard's challenge is not just a matter of delivering the dollars to do what the White Paper promises. She also has to find ways to persuade and inspire to match the ambitions. The gap between vision and strategy is well captured by Paul Kelly:

In 40 years covering national governments I cannot recollect a previous vision statement that has been so ambitious nor a statement where the gulf between present outcomes and future benchmarks is so substantial.

In deciding to have the Asia Century inquiry in the first place, Gillard took close advice from Paul Keating. It was classic Keating conjuring that he could compress the essence of the White Paper into one vivid image. China and India, Keating said, are on track to becoming the largest economies in the world, and this is like switching the world's magnetic field: 'The intensity of this polarity shift is of such magnitude, all the filings of Australian foreign, trade, investment and cultural policy should find themselves going in the direction of that magnetic field.'

Gillard should sit down with Keating again to discuss the ups, downs and magnetic effects of trying to turn an Asian vision into Australian votes, much less a working policy.

Photo by Flickr user avlxyz.


7 Nov 2012 09:03

 Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia, Singapore and Kuwait and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Gallen. 

Those of us in Europe who follow Australian policy know perfectly well that (a) the Asia Pacific is the strategic story of our time and that (b) Australia cannot but orient its policy accordingly.

I see two major achievements of the Asian Century White Paper: first, its clear and positive embrace of the region: 'Asia will grow and Australia with it'; and second, using this view as a launching pad for an ambitious national blueprint.

I wish we had such a clear perspective for the future over here. Europe's lack of a bit of Zukunftsgläubigkeit (the shining city on hill thing) is one of its major problems. From all I remember, and continue to see, Australia does not suffer from this particular European ill.

The White Paper sets out the need to balance old alliances and build new ones. The sentence, 'We accept that China's military growth is a natural, legitimate outcome of its growing economy and broadening interests' is as sweeping an acceptance as could be in the face of current armament efforts by Beijing. But this is balanced by a phrase later in the paper that 'We consider that a strong and consistent US presence will be as important...as in the past.' Could this government, any Australian government really, have said anything substantially different? [fold]

Would there have been any 'voices from the region' not endorsing a balance? Not from India, not from Vietnam but neither from Indonesia; the basics haven't changed regardless of an eventual transformation from the old 'Pax Americana' to a new 'Pax Pacifica'; the one thing they want less than the a heavy US footprint in the Asia Pacific is none at all.

Some Australian experts have said the White Paper didn't go far enough: according to Dr John Blaxman the Australian Government and, especially, the people, haven't understood a thing about saving face and other allegedly typical Asian traits. Sam Bateman, former Australian Naval Commodore, writes from Singapore that the Asian perception of Australia is still anchored around the deputy sheriff role and thus the White Paper should have listened 'to more voices in the region itself rather than whole-heartedly endorsing US perspectives and initiatives'.

After 15 years in the Asian region, including four years in Australia, I would say to Dr Blaxman that just as there are drunken Aussies in Bali (and, incidentally, loutish Swiss in Pattaya) there is ignorance, prejudice and worse against Westerners in the emerging part of the Asia Pacific and especially in China. 

My personal experience is, the more one engages with Asians (if there is such a thing at all) on a courteous but direct and personal level, the better. As I teach my students, who typically come from all over the world including the Asia Pacific, it is a good thing to know the language when you do business in a foreign country but sometimes in the Asia Pacific it is even better not to know it, or at least not too well, as language, certainly Mandarin, can be a delicate domain reservé of natives.

Photo by Flickr user square(art).


9 Nov 2012 09:08

What role does Australian multiculturalism have to play as the Asian Century progresses? At a time when the country is reaching out to its neighbours, it seems axiomatic that Australia should celebrate its ethnic diversity and particularly the contribution of its Asian-born citizens.

Unsurprisingly, then, multiculturalism receives a strong endorsement in the White Paper, along with a realistic appraisal.

Australia has by and large managed its increasing ethnic diversity successfully. But there have, from time to time, been difficulties. Australia needs to continue to strengthen and build upon our institutional frameworks to address racial discrimination and to preserve and promote social cohesion and inclusion.

Recently, multiculturalism has come under fire in Europe. David Cameron believes it has 'encouraged different cultures to live separate lives'. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared it 'dead'. Here in Australia, their arguments have found an echo from conservative commentators, like Greg Sheridan of The Australian and Gerard Henderson of The Sydney Institute.

However, a new book from Melbourne academic Tim Soutphommasane, Don't Go Back To Where You Came From, argues not only that it works, but also that Australia has come to rival Canada as the world's most successfully multicultural country.

Just as Australia's economic model has proven unusually robust, the same is true of its multicultural model. 'Australian governments have always balanced the endorsement of cultural diversity with affirmations of national unity,' writes Soutphommasane. 'The freedom to express one's cultural identity and heritage has been formalised as a right...but this has been balanced by civic responsibilities.' It's a winning formula, he says, and gives Australia an in-built advantage at the start of the Asian Century.

For all that, the country could do better. [fold]

To begin with, the positive language of the White Paper seems at odds with the government's increasingly unwelcoming immigration and asylum seeker policies. Notes Soutphommasane: 'For many, the retreat from population growth and immigration, along with a hardened posture on asylum seekers, could be seen as a proxy attack on the conditions for a multicultural Australia.'

The White Paper claims also that Australians with Asian heritage have become 'active participants in Australian community and civic life'. But Soutphommasane shows that they are largely absent from the country's national institutions. Parliament can only boast three politicians of non-European background: Penny Wong, Lisa Singh and the indigenous Liberal MP Ken Wyatt. Wong is Canberra's only Asian-born politician.

The Australian Defence Force does not do much better. The 2007 Defence Census showed that 94% of the permanent members of the ADF were born in Australia, the UK, Ireland or New Zealand. Only 1% of permanent members hail from Asia.

Nor does Australian television, with the obvious exception of SBS, hold up a mirror to the country. Neighbours has not had a character of Asian background who has lasted more than a year. Commercial television especially could do much better, and there is a commercial imperative to do so. The ratings success of shows like MasterChef and Australian Idol is no accident. Both are more representative of the new Australia.

'A form of Anglo-Celtic community still defines the theory and practice of government,' he notes, and animates its national stories. But even in the ANZAC legend can be found 'unlikely dashes' of Asian flavour. Consider the role at Gallipoli and in France of Billy Sing, a sniper who was born of a Chinese father and British mother.

What makes Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From especially resonant is that Soutphommasane is the son of refugees. His parents escaped Laos following the communist rise to power in 1975, and made their home, via France, in Sydney's western suburbs. His study, which is both a history of the massive demographic changes that have overtaken this country and also a manifesto for placing multiculturalism at the very heart of national life, makes a vital and timely contribution to the Asian Century debate. 


9 Nov 2012 15:41

I thought Graeme Dobell's column on the Asian Century White Paper last week was a real cracker. I found this passage particularly reassuring:

Malcolm Cook remarks on the limited coverage by the tabloids. The tabloids are, indeed, important attack dogs because of their finely tuned populist noses. The idea of teaching Asian languages to every Australian kid did not, apparently, look like red meat to the redtops. Nothing to bark at there; back to rising electricity prices.

Malcolm's worry is that the tabloid lack of interest indicates Australians just don't want to think about Asia. Perhaps, but maybe many Australians, like the tabloids, didn't see much to get excited about: Asia is important? Yeah, got that memo a while ago. Asia is paying the national bills? Knew that. Just hope we don't have to get our heads around Mandarin to help the kids with the homework. Asia is our future? Tick! Get back to us when you've worked out the details. The people expect the polity to do the policy particulars.

But Graeme and I may both need to readjust our thinking on the tabloids and the Asian century in light of the truly dreadful piece of reporting on a 'all-Asian mall' that aired on Wednesday night's A Current Affair ('what local suburb will they target next?').

Brought to my attention by reader Tom.


15 Nov 2012 12:05

Let the footnotes of history record that, in the week the Gillard Government published its Asian Century White Paper, Australian readers of The Economist saw on its cover a picture not of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney but of China's new leader, Xi Jinping. The campaign story, 'America on a knife-edge', merited only a sub-heading, and the fourth one at that.

No doubt this would be much to the Prime Minister's liking. In launching the White Paper at the Lowy Institute, some of her strongest remarks were targeted at the local media for neglecting the region on its doorstep, comments that will strike many journalists as a bit rich coming from a leader who once almost boasted of her lack of passion for foreign affairs.

Watching the BBC World News these past few weeks, it was interesting to see my own news organisation give equal billing in its on-air promos to the presidential election in America and the leadership transition in Beijing. In another symbolic move, London dispatched our World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, to Beijing, when at US election time he would normally be reporting from Washington.

Was it not also telling that the New York Times' most explosive story of the past month was an October surprise for the outgoing Chinese premier Wen Jiabao rather than Obama or Romney? In terms of scandal, Bo Xilai and his wife also served up much richer copy than any of America's political couples. Perhaps for the first time, Chinese politics produced a story with tabloid as well as broadsheet allure. [fold]

Australia is well served by its Beijing correspondents, with Stephen McDonell of the ABC and John Garnaut of Fairfax as notable stand-outs. Richard McGregor, an Australian journalist who covered China for the Financial Times, is also the author of the acclaimed The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers. Elsewhere in the region, there is no shortage of fine Australian journalists reporting back from Japan, Indonesia or Thailand. Just look at ABC's regional strength, with correspondents of the calibre of Zoe Daniel, Mark Willacy and Helen Brown.

But there are supply-side problems. Newsgathering in China is obviously enormously difficult, given the Communist Party's strongly authoritarian, censorious and secretive streaks. Even the most rudimentary information, like the date when the Communist Party conclave was due to end, is hard to come by, according to TIME's Hannah Beech. And it can be difficult for journalists to get accreditation, although China is probably more accessible now than outsiders would think.

Storytelling is also a challenge, and not only because of language and logistical barriers. We are witnessing a seismic global shift, but finding ways of telling that story, over and over, requires imagination as well as diligence.

I found this when serving as the BBC's South Asia correspondent based in Delhi. There were only so many times you could film a call centre or contrast the shimmering mirror glass headquarters of its global out-sourcing giants with the slum conditions nearby. As the BBC's Asia bureau editor Jo Floto told me: 'The story of China is a story of process — of social and economic change — rather than events.' That is why the Bo Xilai story was such a sensation: it was a running Chinese news story that demanded updates everyday.

Asian coverage, in Australia and beyond, suffers more from a shortage of popular demand rather than problems with supply. For the reasons that Michael and Sam discuss, it is inevitable that America's great carnival of democracy, with its rich human tableau, should generate more excitement that the rather monochrome, heavily stage-managed events in the Great Hall of the People. Inevitably, the race for the White House is more riveting than the make-up of the Politburo Standing Committee.

So I doubt whether there will ever be parity between the news coverage of America and China. Beijing is unlikely ever to have the news entertainment value of Washington, or box office stars like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. Better to hope that a more Asia-literate country will come to demand more Asian news, not out of a sense of geopolitical correctness but through genuine interest.

Clearly there is a long way to go. Just contrast the discrepancy in coverage on commercial news bulletins of the Chinese leadership transition with the visit of Charles and Camilla. In a sign of Australia's resilient Anglo-Celtic heritage, the cameras captured them on Melbourne Cup day watching from the VIP box as Green Moon, an Irish-bred horse, raced to victory.

Let's hope this kind of coverage of Asian Australians will also soon be a thing of the past: Channel Nine's A Current Affair 'racist beat-up' about the 'Asian invasion' of a shopping mall in the northwest Sydney suburb of Castle Hill, which was debunked within hours by the local paper. What Channel Nine put to air was not Australia in the Asian Century. It was Australia in the nineteenth century.

Photo by Flickr user slimmer_jimmer.


27 Nov 2012 13:41

One bit of the Asian Century that has already arrived in Canberra is the way the Prime Minister keeps flying off to meet Asian leaders.

Over a three month period, Julia Gillard has done Asia Pacific duty at APEC in Vladivostok, attended the Asia-Europe summit in Vientiane, and co-chaired the Bali Democracy Forum with the presidents of Indonesia and South Korea. Back in June, Gillard was at the G20 summit in Mexico, and the G20 is as much an expression of the Asian Century as any of the other talkfests. Now Gillard is back in Canberra after her final trip to the peak for this year, the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.

The summit cycle, especially in the final third of the year, has become an established element in an Australian prime minister's calendar. This is far from ho-hum stuff, but the rituals of regionalism, jet speeds and satellite saturation conspire to deliver a certain recurrent familiarity. All the leaders' group photos start to blur – even the ones with funny shirts.

One benefit of sticking around Canberra for decades is the ability to remark on how remarkable all this summitry is for a nation that still anguishes over notions of region and belonging. [fold]

When I started reporting Australia's leader going to summits in the 1970s, the chance for prime ministerial multilateralism was decidedly limited. The PM got to go to the Commonwealth every two years to talk about Africa, while the new and exciting chance for summitry was offered by the South Pacific Forum. Apart from that, zilch!

Malcolm Fraser went to one ASEAN summit (they then occurred only once or twice a decade) and his pining to attend to the G7 never got beyond the wishing and hoping stage.

That era of famine has slowly given way to a feast of fly-away functions. The Asia summitry which has become a recurring element of the prime ministerial diary is more a reflection than a driver of an era of profound change. Yet constant summitry has shaped the job description of this Oz leader and all who will follow her. 

It was noteworthy (in the sense of being shocking and having few precedents) that The Australian started this week with an editorial praising Gillard's performance on the summit trail, 'successfully representing Australia on the world stage':

Only the most churlish would dispute that the Prime Minister deserves praise for the way she has represented our interests in the 10 overseas trips she has made in the past 12 months. She clearly would not lay claim to being a modern-day Talleyrand, but she has made good on her pledge when she made her "I'm not passionate about foreign affairs" admission to be "a feisty advocate" for our national interests.

Treasure that editorial endorsement for its rarity while accepting its accuracy.

Gillard has tracked John Howard in her summit trajectory, starting off as reluctant, even resistant, yet slowly growing in confidence through repeat exposure. Part of that evolution is the simple realisation, on reaching the summit, that all politicians, whatever system they emerge from, have similarities. An apparatchik is ever an apparatchik; they must always be able to count and reach to control. And all apparatchiks understand the rule Ronald Reagan urged on his negotiators: 'When you can't make them see the light, make them feel the heat.'

So, in Phnom Penh, there was little light shed on the vexed issue of the South China Sea, but the heat keeps building. 

The East Asia Summit was also notable for the formal launch of a significant race between trade groupings centred on the US and China. Or to put the contest in the negative, one version of Asia's trade future that excludes China and another that excludes the US. Stephen Grenville gives an excellent account of these 'two different and perhaps competing approaches to trade liberalisation': the ASEAN-centred Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the US-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership. As I've argued previously, this is a contest between Chinese noodles and a US steak dinner, and all sides are becoming more explicit in noting that element of contest between the Asian future imagined by the lawyers and lobbyists in Washington against Asia's mandarins and moguls.

Australia is part of both efforts but claims that this competition can turn out to be complimentary. That is the optimistic view offered by the Asian Century White Paper while being explicit in seeing that a race is afoot:

Negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership could create momentum for competitive liberalisation and put Australia on two complementary pathways to a free trade area of the Asia–Pacific. Australia welcomes and encourages these processes. We recognise that outcomes agreed in one negotiation that facilitate deeper economic integration will encourage new members to join, and also create pressure to adopt similar liberalisation in competing negotiations.

At the summit, the leaders can appear as complementary as they like. In the negotiating trenches, the words from this passage that count will be 'competition' and 'pressure'. The heat matters as much as the light.

The point about a rolling series of summits is to get some sense of cohesion and control in a deeply competitive environment. As Gillard flew back from her final leaders' meeting of the year, she could reflect that the Phnom Penh version, in both its geo-economic and geo-political dimensions, underscored the truth that what cannot be agreed at the summit is as important as what can be clinched.

Photo by Flickr user Julia Gillard.