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Putting Australia on Asia's dance card

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COMMENTS

23 January 2012 18:02

Rawdon Dalrymple is a former Australian ambassador to Indonesia, the US and Japan.

Stephen Grenville has had more than forty years of engagement with Asia starting with his embassy posting in Jakarta in 1968. He has also been a Deputy Governor of the RBA and has more recently advised Indonesian authorities on economic and financial policy. His disappointment and frustration with Australia's failure to respond in depth to the vast changes in the region deserves respect and attention.

Grenville's latest posting (Oz still a wallflower at Asia's party) is triggered by discussion of the implications of developments in our US alliance. He starts from the position that 'No serious commentator is suggesting that Australia should focus on Asia to the exclusion (or even downgrading) of our US relationship'.

But the very brief account of US policy in the region which follows seems to me rather partial. A fuller treatment would take into account, for example, the US leadership of and large contribution to the Indonesian rescue (then IGGI) in 1966, the setting up of the Asian Development Bank (in both initiatives the US got Japan for the first time to take the lead role), as well as the International Rice Research Institute and the 'miracle rice' revolution.

In a more immediately Australian context our much celebrated East Timor operation leading the international intervention would hardly have been possible without US equipment and might have ended badly had not the then US Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen gone to Jakarta and explained that if General Wiranto and his 25,000 troops just over the border in West Timor interfered with the small Australian contingent they would have to reckon with the US force standing offshore.

I think the idea of Australia acting as a bridge between the US and Asia has always been unrealistic and anyway almost irrelevant to the main issue Grenville identifies: the lack of depth in Australia's own engagement with the region.

Indeed, as he mentions, important elements of that engagement have even diminished in recent times. Of course the relationship with China has burgeoned with the resources boom, Chinese investment here and efforts by both sides to seek fuller and more sympathetic understanding. But the relationship with Japan has probably slipped back a little and our capabilities in relation to the whole region from north to south (two billion-plus people and perhaps more than half the global economy) has not increased.

Why are Asian languages, history etc less studied here now than twenty years ago? Why is there still so little Australian export business from Australia to those countries not requiring our iron ore, coal etc? And so little Australian investment? Grenville asks these questions and others, like the relative paucity of Asian coverage in our media.

At one level, the answer is easy: for 90% of Australians these countries, their languages, cultures and histories are much more foreign than those of Europe and the Americas. Despite geography, they are less accessible.

Why have the necessary steps not been taken to overcome these obstacles? It has not been for lack of trying by major institutions such as the Australian National University and relevant parts of other universities, some elements of the federal government and of state governments. We have had some prime ministers and foreign ministers who appeared genuinely interested and what is now DFAT has been on the job for a long time now (its present Secretary was Head of the Political Section in the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in the early 1980s). But DFAT's resources have been cut back further and further and the information and cultural capacities slashed. Only the consular services (which attract public attention and where ministers want at all costs to avoid vulnerability) are fairly adequately funded.

In times of stringency, governments are unlikely to make expensive efforts in the face of public apathy. Nor can government in Australia do much to alleviate the often rather squalid image of Australia generated by some of our tourism to places like Bali and Phuket. What we need is a major national soul-search on the relationship with Asia. Good luck to you, Dr Henry!

Photo by Flickr user mikaku.

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