Asian Century White Paper is a foreign policy fail, but not by accident

Paucity of detail on foreign policy indicates the Federal Government’s approach to the Asian Century is more about using Asia as a foil to promote domestic reforms.

For a policy document purporting to map out future directions for Australia in the so-called “Asian Century”, the recently released White Paper pays remarkably scant regard to foreign policy.

Several chapters discuss in great detail the economic and regulatory reforms required to help Australia thrive in the rapidly changing global economic climate. Changes to school curricula and higher education also get considerable attention. But foreign policy appears to have been left almost as an afterthought.

The only chapter in which traditional foreign policy concerns, such as security and overseas development assistance, are explicitly canvassed is Chapter 8. And in a report in which many recommendations are essentially aspirational and currently unfunded, this chapter’s recommendations are the most aspirational and the least specific of all.

Indeed, the only measures currently funded for immediate implementation by the Foreign Ministry are the deployment of a Jakarta-based ambassador to ASEAN and 12,000 Australia Award (Asian Century) scholarships. To be sure, the latter is a substantial and welcome commitment but reflects an extension of Australia’s current scholarship program and not a new initiative.

The thinness of the White Paper’s foreign policy analysis and recommendations is revealing. It reflects not so much an oversight by the authors, but two important and related factors, which are crucial to understand in order to make sense of the White Paper’s origins and prospects.

First, increasing economic interdependence over the past few decades has blurred the boundaries between domestic and foreign policy to a considerable extent, leading in some cases to the latter’s extinction as a distinct policy realm. This blurring of previously well-demarcated policy realms is not unique to Australia.

Consider the issue of trade – traditionally seen as a foreign policy matter. Australia was a leader in the promotion of trade liberalisation in the Asia Pacific in the 1980s and 1990s, through the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, and globally through its support for the Uruguay Round and the World Trade Organization.

But as the White Paper mentions in passing, the traditional trade liberalisation agenda is currently stuck. Instead, emphasis has shifted over the past decade from eliminating barriers and tariffs to harmonising regulation of issues such as intellectual property rights, or in some cases labour and environmental standards. These of course are all domestic policy issues and are treated as such by the White Paper.

The second factor is more Australia-specific. It relates to the long-term role played by “Asia” – or Australian imaginings of Asia to be precise – in the constitution of Australian national identity. Right from Federation, Australian governments have sought to justify their domestic political agendas with reference to the supposed implications of proximity to Asia.

As Prime Minister Gillard noted when launching the White Paper, Asia was viewed in the early days of Australian Federation as a threat to Australians, with the “working man’s paradise” seen to be dependent on keeping Asia – and Asians – out.

More recently, during the reform days of the Hawke and Keating governments, the rise of an increasingly affluent and competitive Asia at Australia’s doorstep was the “stick” with which the government sought to beat both unions and business into accepting its economic liberalisation agenda.

Australia, it was often argued then, had no choice but to open up its economy, at a considerable cost to sectors such as manufacturing, or be left behind and become poorer and increasingly irrelevant.

The clothing of deeply political domestic agendas in the technocratic language of economic and regulatory reform borne out of necessity links the current White Paper with its predecessors, notably the 1989 Garnaut Report.

There is, of course, no denying the massive economic and social transformations that have occurred in Asia over the past few decades. But the drivers of these transformations and their implications for Australia are contested.

Critics of the 1980s and 1990s economic liberalisation agenda argued, for example, that the so-called “Asian miracle” was the result of massive state intervention in markets and not wholesale economic liberalisation as the Garnaut Report and the government argued at the time.

Similarly, the governments of China, Japan and Korea are currently busy negotiating free trade agreements with resource-rich countries to secure not freer markets but preferential access to key resources.

This contest of ideas was never reflected in the Garnaut Report and is likewise missing in the recent White Paper. Once again, notwithstanding the White Paper’s promise of inclusive growth, we hear that further economic liberalisation is the only path to future prosperity for Australia. Once again, the reality of painful political battles, of “winners” and “losers” in the Asian Century, is masked by the technocratic tone of the White Paper.

And here is the rub: this White Paper is not really about Asia. It is about using Asia to promote domestic reforms within Australia. The relative insignificance of foreign policy within the White Paper is therefore not a coincidence. But whether this government is capable of harnessing Asia’s rise to win the domestic political battles ahead remains to be seen.