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Reordering Australia's Asia preferences

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COMMENTS

25 June 2012 14:25

Trade and economic interests are not always definitive, but they have obvious weight and, most importantly, they influence the hierarchy and slow re-ordering of national preferences.

The shift of economic weight has cumulative effects on preferences which feed into judgments about national interest. What were once easy options can become unthinkable or at least look narrow and outdated because of these cumulative changes. This is not soft power influence, but the hard power calculations of dollars and cents.

Consider how Australia thinks about China and India using the APEC frame. In 1989, Australia was happy to help create the key governmental expression of the Asia Pacific's economic future, APEC, while not having China as a founding member. The blood and horror of Tiananmen meant China could not be in. And when, a few years later, Beijing did join, it had to walk through the door with Taiwan and Hong Kong, an equivalence that is unthinkable now.

When APEC was being created, India did not even stand on the threshold of membership. India is still out, but now APEC is the loser. When it chaired APEC in 2007, Australia was guilty of a failure of imagination and leadership for not crusading on India's behalf. China was quite happy with the existing membership, while ASEAN was more interested in India's role in the East Asia Summit. Australia did not push.

Yet if we were doing APEC from scratch today, both China and India would be so essential as to have something of a veto. 

The structures are not always quick to adapt to the way power is shifting. And some new structures try to resist the coming tide. Australia is happily pushing the accelerator to try to realise the US vision of a Trans Pacific Partnership. This would be an exclusionary preferential trade system for the Asia Pacific with labour, environmental and copyright standards that China would not be able to stomach. A decade after the major and sustained effort China made to get into the WTO, Beijing sees not reason why it has to grapple with a fresh set of US demands.

As argued previously, a key question for Australia in the TPP is how much it is prepared to shut out China. Even posing the question in such terms suggests what a diabolical choice it could become.

The Japan experience is important in considering how Australia's preferences and understandings are reforming. Japan took centre stage in Australian regional thinking in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. The cumulative effect was that Australia could not conceive of being in any trade deal aimed against Japan. Keating made that pledge in 1992, a statement notable for being as obvious as it was important. 

When Keating made that point, Japan had stood at the top of Australia's trade table for nearly three decades; that was three decades of growing importance as Australia's policy and interests realigned to reflect an understanding of what Japan meant. The fact that Japan was a US ally made it that much easier, but nevertheless the reshaping and reordering of Australian preferences from the 1960s to the 1990s reflected a significant Japan influence.

In the 1960 and 1970s, it was almost inevitable that Australia would abandon the century-old mindset of the White Australia policy, yet Asia demanded that of us. It was Japan that exemplified this reality in economic and diplomatic terms that were as important as the social or immigration policy elements. This is a point with a lot of history. Recall that at the Versailles negations after World War I it was Billy Hughes' passionate defence of White Australia that caused a disastrous clash with Japan, with echoes that resounded through the coming decades.

Having Japan as our number one partner for three decades altered many Australian assumptions; two to three decades of the same with China will surely have an equal impact. And just over the horizon, there is India.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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