Is Australia ready for the ‘Asian century?’

Australia will have to try something new, and align itself more closely to Asia. AAP Image/Adam Gartrell

AUSTRALIA IN ASIA: In the first of The Conversation’s series on Australia’s relations with Asia, Professor Tony Milner of the Australian National University examines whether we are prepared for the “Asian Century”.

The father of the Singaporean economic miracle Lee Kuan Yew is reported to have predicted in the 1980s that Australia was destined to become “the poor white trash of Asia”.

Most Australians would feel today that he got that wrong, but there can be no argument about Lee’s success in transforming his small island into one of the world’s trading superpowers.

Singapore seems well positioned to thrive in what many observers predict will be the “Asian Century”, the previous century having belonged to America.

What will this “Asian Century” look like? How well prepared are we to navigate it? What place might Australia get at the table?

The Gillard Government has launched a White Paper into this very issue. The intent is worthy, the result unknown.

Given Australia’s “Western” heritage - an island at that, in the Asia Pacific - there is no guarantee we will get this vital policy review right.

Asia is not the Asia Pacific

An “Asian Century” is more challenging for Australians than an “Asia-Pacific century” – and it is also more likely.

The economic figures for Chinese and Indian growth are cited time and again – though the continued economic power of Japan is often overlooked.

As former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown puts it, “the West is now being out-produced, out-manufactured, out-traded, and out-invested”, and leading international companies admit that “the majority of their growth will come from Asia”.

The United States, of course, remains a major military and economic power, but in seminars and elsewhere in the Asian region its relative decline is often discussed.

It is no longer the major export destination for most Asian countries; Secretary of State Clinton now asks whether the debt crisis might damage America’s continued capacity to project power in the Asia Pacific; newspapers across Asia report United States Vice President Joe Biden assuring Beijing that America will meet its debt obligations.

This is not the United States of a decade ago.

In the 2009 Australian Defence White Paper the Australian government was already contemplating a less United States-dependent future.

Australia, it explained, has been a “very secure country for many decades” largely because peace and stability have been “underwritten by US strategic primacy”.

That order “is being transformed as economic changes start to bring about changes in the distribution of strategic power” and “risks resulting from escalating strategic competition might emerge quite unpredictably”.

The Prime Minister’s recent lecture is more upbeat - noting that we are geographically closer than our competitors “to the fastest growing and most economically dynamic region of the world” and concentrating on the opportunities to service the massive new Asian middle class.

She explained her review would “ask and answer… great national questions”, however, she also stressed that the extraordinary Asian growth “will change the social and economic, strategic and environmental order of our world”.

What might an Asian century entail?

Julia Gillard announcing the government’s new review into Australia’s relationship with Asia. AAP Image/Jason South