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Oz still a wallflower at Asia's party

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COMMENTS

19 January 2012 10:15

Andrew Shearer represents a long tradition in Australian diplomacy, of viewing Asia through the prism of our relationship with the US. No serious commentator is suggesting that Australia should focus on Asia to the exclusion (or even downgrading) of our US relationship; everyone agrees that keeping the US involved in Asia is a high priority. So what's this all about?

It is doubtless true that there are some people in Asia who see our closeness to the US as a positive factor, perhaps even our unique advantage. We can be a bridge between Asia and the US. For this group, the Darwin Marines, our active involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our ready support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will all be seen as helpful. If these are the people we want to influence, putting the US in an important place in the Asian Century White Paper might make sense. 

But there are others in the region less favourably disposed to the US, ready to see containment, neo-imperialism or worse. You don't have to be a paranoid Indonesian to misinterpret the Darwin Marines decision: even Brzezinski is puzzled.

Indonesia has already said it's not ready for TPP, and there are serious doubts in Japan. If it's about trade, why isn't China there? If it's about containment, there is a valid debate about whether this is a good idea. The Deputy Sheriff type-casting might have been a misinterpretation of intent, but it was an easy mistake to make.

Others in Asia recall the low priority the US gave to the region in the post-Vietnam War period. In the 1997 Asian Crisis, the US dominated the discussion (vetoing the idea of an Asian Monetary Fund, driving the unreasonable conditionality of IMF loans) but had no financial contribution to make in Thailand or Indonesia (Mexico, on its border, got $50 billion just a few years earlier). The Committee to Save the World might have been featured on the cover of TIME magazine, but many of us remember them as opinionated, domineering and wrong.

Since then, there has been a half-hearted attempt to give Asia representation in the international financial architecture (IMF, BIS etc) commensurate with its economic weight. Always given belatedly and grudgingly, it has left the incumbents still in full control of everything that matters. If the Henry Report is hoping to shift some of these Asian minds to think more positively about Australia, then this will not be helped by a 'through American eyes' orientation.

But in any case the principal target should be Australians, because it's we who need changing. For an Australian audience, what matters is what's happening in Asia, not in America or its relations with Asia. So what about us?

If we really were 'breathless with excitement' about the Asian growth story, we would have expired long ago: it's been going for three decades in China (it's well over twenty years since Ross Garnaut wrote 'Australia and the North Asian Ascendancy') and much longer elsewhere in Asia. But as the 'tyranny of distance' was replaced by the 'opportunity of proximity' (sorry, breathless again), how has Australia responded? Asia changed us demographically and gastronomically. We got off the sheep's back, and now ride the resources wave, thanks to Asian growth.

But Australian business venturing into the region generally still finds itself in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory (the enclaves of Hong Kong and Singapore aside), and our investment in the region is small. The Foreign Minister urges Australian businesses to invest in Indonesia while at the same time his Department's Travel Advisory recommends that they don't set foot in the place. Study of Asian languages has almost died out in Australian universities. The cadre of Asian specialists is little bigger today than it was forty years ago.

In countries like Indonesia, our diplomatic influence may be less today than forty years ago. Having decided to 'play hard to get' in joining regional forums, we found ourselves the wallflowers at the dance, belatedly scurrying around to try to find some links into the vigorous regional dialogue that had by then been going on for decades. The coverage of Asia in the Australian media is so thin it's hardly visible. And it's not just the commercial channels: SBS covers the Middle East (thanks to the Al Jazeera feed) better than it covers Asia.

The Henry Task Force has only just got under way, so any thoughts here are no more than suggestions for their consideration. The central task is not to draw up a plan for getting ourselves into lock-step with the US 'pivot' into Asia. It is to change the Australian mindset so that we can take stock of how well we have made use of the opportunities given to us, as a small, rich technologically-advanced country on the edge of the world's most dynamic region. Do we ride the resources wave into the beach and then spread out a towel for a sunbake? Or do we address what seems to be a long list of missed or half-taken opportunities?

Photo by Flickr user woohoo!!.

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