Election 2013 Issues: Australia and the world

Karratha in Western Australia, the capital of the mining boom. Is Australia simply the world’s quarry with nice beaches? AAP/Suree Pritchard

Welcome to the first of The Conversation Election 2013 State of the Nation essays. These articles by leading experts in their field provide an in-depth look at the key policy challenges affecting Australia as the nation heads to the polls. Today, we look at how Australia engages with the rest of the world, and how the rest of the world sees us.

Australian political parties and election campaigns normally pay little attention to the wider world. The coming federal election is unlikely to be different.

Yet, powerful changes are transforming Australia’s international environment. Two are particularly worthy attention.

The most obvious change is the far-reaching shift in the world’s economic and geopolitical centre of gravity – from the West (United States and Europe) to the East (Asia).

Ours is a world where all things move at accelerating speed, scale and intensity: goods and services, capital, technology, arms, carbon emissions, pathogens, people, information, ideas and images.

They make mighty rivers of cross-border flows, which no literal or political border can effectively stop, that call into question past habits and beliefs.

Last year’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper recognised these trends. For the foreseeable future China, India, South Korea, Japan and the emerging economies of Southeast Asia will be the principal destination for our exports, and China a major investment source.

However, the White Paper and political parties generally need to address several unpleasant questions. Will Australia remain an overwhelmingly energy resource, mineral and agricultural product exporter? New industry development and a services sector has been called for.

It is not clear how these will make their way in a highly competitive market. To make life more difficult, the Chinese economy and others may be slowing down and about to enter a new phase. How can Australia adjust to such changes?

Our current reliance for export revenue on mining and agriculture has long-term environmental consequences, both here and abroad. Are our current energy export strategies environmentally sustainable?

Some imagine Australia becoming the food bowl of Asia. Notwithstanding utopian ideas about genetic modification, this is not an easily achievable goal given Australia’s highly fragile natural environment.

Expanding the mining and agricultural sectors may have short to medium term economic gains. Yet, expansion could be socially disruptive to indigenous communities, further weakening their connection with traditional lands.

But there is more to the Asian century than just economics. The White Paper recommends the development of a world class educational system, with much emphasis on developing our training infrastructure and language competencies. This is mostly presented as a passport to material prosperity; our interest in Asia, it seems, is largely instrumental.

We have yet to devise policies that acknowledge the richness of Asian cultures, their literatures, their values, their ancient and still living wisdom. Our much vaunted multiculturalism could gain much from a deeper religious and ethical understanding as well as the political and legal systems that are integral to a re-emerging Asia.

If culture is the great unspoken subject in Australia’s efforts to engage with Asia, security is not far behind, most noticeably China’s rise. While Japan, South Korea, India and Indonesia will all be important partners for Australia, relationships with them are more easily managed either because they are themselves aligned to the United States, or because they pose much less of a threat to US ascendancy in Asia. China is a different proposition – politically, culturally and strategically.

The dialogue with China has to engage not just political leaders, generals and diplomats, but our business communities, lawyers, doctors, architects, athletes, intellectuals, students, artists and journalists. It must address traditional security concerns, including China-Japan tensions, the South China sea dispute, nuclear proliferation and UN peace operations, but also emerging regional challenges, including climate change, piracy, organised crime, and child trafficking. It must also take account of the legitimate interests and concerns of our Southeast Asian neighbours.

A durable China-Australia conversation can serve as a powerful tool for mutual listening and learning. If properly conducted, it will be a catalyst for high quality joint research and policy innovation.

As for the United States, Australian policy makers and citizens alike have to recognise that it is no longer the dominant power it once was. A special relationship with the US is worth preserving in trade, investment, education, technical innovation and culture, so is a cooperative approach to climate change, humanitarian emergencies, peacekeeping, arms control and disarmament.

There is little to be gained from subservience to US military priorities and diplomatic interests, or support for policies which seek to contain China. We may also need to take our distance from US military interventions in the Muslim world, including surveillance, drone strikes and the punitive responses surrounding the Assanges and Snowdens of the world.

The final beam in the Shanghai Tower, set to be the world’s second tallest building, is laid. Much of China’s boom was fuelled by Australian coal and iron ore, but can this continue? EPA/An Tu China

Which brings us to the new realities of a shrinking and increasingly porous world. We are just beginning to realise – all too slowly – that most of the problems we presently face exceed the problem solving capacities of any one nation.

Drug trafficking and people smuggling, climate change, humanitarian disasters, refugee flows, piracy, pandemics, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and financial crises are just some of the challenges weighing heavily on Australia’s future. They bear upon not just our external relations but every facet of Australian society, economy and environment. They straddle foreign and domestic policy.

As daunting as they are, these challenges also offer opportunities for a middle power like Australia to develop a unique path to ‘international good citizenship’. We have at different times dabbled with the idea, but have rarely taken it seriously.

Kevin Rudd in his first term as prime minister floated the intriguing idea of an Asia-Pacific community. The initiative was poorly articulated and made little headway, lacking prior consultation with neighbours and awareness of sensitive cross-culture dialogue.

Paul Keating established in the 1990s the Canberra Commission for the elimination of nuclear weapon. More than a decade later, Kevin Rudd initiated another commission – co-chaired by Gareth Evans – on the same subject. Both produced excellent reports, but conservative and Labor governments have not followed through.

Regarding the fraught question of boat arrivals, none of the parties has yet articulated or implemented a policy which distinguishes action against people smuggling from our obligations to asylum seekers. Many of those seeking refuge are fleeing situations in Afghanistan, Iraq or Iran (to which we contributed through military intervention or sanctions) and in Sri Lanka (where we failed to respond to gross human rights abuses and possible war crimes).

We devoted much effort to secure a seat on the UN Security Council, with little consultation with our Asian neighbours.

Simply put, the idea is that people – individuals and communities – rather than the state should be at the core of all security related policies. In other words, security policy needs to go beyond mere defence of territory to include economic security, environmental security, human rights, democratic governance and the rule of law.

Though Australian governments have periodically paid lip service to human security, we have yet to see a carefully crafted statement of objectives with a detailed plan for the institutional and policy changes needed.

Such a programmatic approach offers several advantages. First, it signals a clear commitment to good international citizenship, and invites wide-ranging consultation and cooperation with Asian partners and vulnerable societies as well as allies.

Secondly, it fosters a whole-of-government approach that overcomes the artificial separation of domestic and foreign policy. It calls for a systematic effort to bring together all government bodies – federal but also state and local – whose expertise and insights bear upon a given problem area.

Thirdly, a human security framework can more effectively engage civil society in the formulation, implementation and review of policy. It opens the way for institutional arrangements that can harness the expertise, insights and connections of universities and research centres, development, human rights, disarmament and other advocacy groups, professional associations, ethnic community and religious organisations and the wider public.

It is unlikely that our major parties will embrace the vision outlined here any time soon. Yet the need to set a new agenda has never been more pressing. Perhaps the coming election campaign can at least contribute to a wider and more focused public conversation.

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