Here's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the Sunrise program on Monday:
PRIME MINISTER: Well this is the most exciting time to be an Australian and there is no more exciting place in the world than Australia.
DAVID KOCH: Why?
PRIME MINISTER: Because we are sitting here in Asia. We are a multicultural society; we are a highly educated society; we have the capacity to be more innovative, more productive. We've got extraordinary lifestyles, we've got great cities, we're a great place to live and we've got to make sure our cities continue to be liveable and sustainable. All of those are great priorities.
This is the Asian century or the Pacific century and we are perfectly positioned in it but we have to be - Kochie, we have to be optimists. We have to be committed and confident in ourselves. We have to not fear the future but embrace it and that's the critical thing. We need - optimism is absolutely critical. It can't just be based on rhetoric; we have to make sure that we make the changes to promote innovation, promote science, promote technology to ensure that we deliver the jobs of the future.
The tone of optimism about Australia's place in the world is certainly a relief after the Abbott years. It has been said that Tony Abbott's mindset on foreign relations was too negative — that his worldview was dominated by threats rather than opportunities. But that's not entirely true. Most of his pessimism was directed at the ISIS threat and 'the boats'. On Asia, his tone was not that different to that of Turnbull above and the Gillard Government, in which Asia's rise is treated primarily as an opportunity for Australia to trade and invest.
In this narrative, the risks of Asia's rise are mentioned far more rarely, but as Linda Jakobson argued after the 2012 launch of the decidedly sunny Asian Century White Paper, this focus on the positive risks leaving the public unprepared for the major strategic shock Australia would suffer in the not unforseeable event that China and the US clash.
I suspect the Abbott Government focused on the ISIS threat rather than the strategic challenges closer to home in part because the former is an easier problem. ISIS is far away and can't really do much damage to Australia or its interests (if the Abbott Government really believed its own Henny Penny rhetoric about ISIS, it would have sent far more combat hardware to the region than half a squadron of Hornets), whereas China represents a more fundamental challenge to the regional order and to Australia; we're witnessing a once-in-a-century shift of economic power that will inevitably stress the existing US-led strategic order Australia relies on. Turnbull himself is aware of this historic shift and has written about it extensively.
That same evening on the ABC's 7:30 program, Turnbull tempered his optimism:
...in terms of our region, what we need to ensure is that the rise of China, which is happening, it's - nothing's gonna stop that any time soon - is, if you like, conducted in a manner that does not disturb the security and the relative harmony of the region upon which China's prosperity depends. Now - now that requires careful diplomacy, it requires balancing and it's an issue, as you know, I've taken a very keen interest in.
So, it's wrong to think that the change from Abbott to Turnbull amounts to a shift from a bunker mentality about the outside world to one of openness, optimism and opportunity. Turnbull's worldview also has its dark corners, and in fact Turnbull's pessimistic streak is more accurately aligned than that of Abbott. That should at least ensure a more honest public conversation about the risks and opportunities of the Asian century.