The political philosopher Edmund Burke once observed that society was a contract across generations linking the past, present and future. Something similar can be said about Australia’s links to Asia: it is a story, shaped by the past, focussed on the present and vital for our future.
It is also a story at many levels: a narrative of government to government relations, of connections forged in commerce, of diaspora groups building distinctive bridges between Australia and their countries of origin, of individuals, such as the line of Weary Dunlop medal recipients, who have made understanding Asia a life-long project.
There is nothing static about the story of Australia and Asia. It has changed over time as both Australia and Asia have changed. It has gone through periods of neglect, anxiety, imagined bounty, indifference, exhortation and controversy.
It is also a long story: geologically joined at the hip before our continents drifted apart, arguably the genetic point of origin of Aboriginal Australia, a story of intermittent contact before European settlement, of Asia in our peripheral vision for much of our colonial history and then the growing awareness that our futures were intertwined.
We had thought that we understood the shape of that shared future but today its contours look less certain. The intersection of the present and the future is a more open question than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
We need to find a new framework to manage perhaps our most consequential relationship in Asia, namely China. A framework which does not abandon engagement but also recognises that engagement alone will not be sufficient to meet the challenges ahead. We need to move towards a new strategic equilibrium in the Indo Pacific which accepts the reality of a new distribution of power, but which can also effectively constrain unacceptable behaviour. An equilibrium which is inclusive and reflects the emerging reality of a multipolar Asia.
The next decade will test many elements of our Asia policy. Can the United States and China manage competition short of conflict? Is it inevitable that a strategic competitor morphs into an enemy? How far will decoupling go and at what economic cost to all of us? And how do we find the vocabulary to re-prosecute the case for an open economy and a liberalising trading system at a time when the siren calls of self-reliance grow ever louder?
None of these questions have simple or quick answers and they will be lurking in the background of our policy making and Asian engagement for a generation or more.
What we do know is that if we are to have any chance of coming to grips with these large challenges we will need to know our region at a deeper level: to understand its many histories, its cultures, its economic drivers, its strategic ambitions and its views of Australia and our place in the world.
Asia is of course a rather arbitrary geographical construct. There is no single Asian culture or view of things. It is a place of many languages, religions and civilisations. So in many ways our ability to engage with Asia is a test of something bigger: our ability as a nation to deal with difference and diversity, to forge partnerships which transcend language or values, to move beyond our comfort zone.
Modern Australia has never been an insular society. But we have lived in a world shaped by Europe and North America and our modern cultural moorings have made us comfortable in that world. That has been a large advantage at many points in our history.
But the world of the next generation will be different. Since federation Australia has enjoyed the strategic luxury of being a partner of the primary global strategic power. Now we must navigate a multipolar world in which we have little experience, and which will require greater self-reliance.
It will be a world shaped more by Asian perspectives and Asian power, by no means exclusively, but significantly. Scale and economic and strategic heft will be more aligned so populous nations, such as China, India, and Indonesia, will matter even more to us and to our prospects. Knowing them better will be a sound investment in the future.
The work of Asialink, which started over 30 years ago with an eye to the future, has never been more important. Our charter urges us to build an Asia capable and deeply Asia engaged Australia. That is more than desirable. It is essential to that contract across the past, the present and the future.
Peter Varghese is chair of the Asialink Council, Chancellor of The University of Queensland and a former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is an edited version of his remarks to the Asialink Weary Dunlop dinner on 24 August 2022.