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

The Asian century will mean more than a mere rebalancing of power between the United States and China: the China-Japan contest could turn out to be more important in shaping Asia’s strategic future, and there is the China-India relationship as well.

The stronger Indonesia, which we are already beginning to see, will also want greater influence in the wider Asian region, and not merely Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Exactly how regional architecture develops will depend on the unfolding of these inter-state dynamics, but we can be fairly certain that an “Asian Century” will not mean the strengthening of “Asia-Pacific” institutions.

Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) lost prestige in the 1997 Asian economic crisis, and the following years saw the growth of the Asia-exclusive ASEAN + 3 process, which brings together the ten ASEAN countries with China, Japan and South Korea.

The East Asia Summit (EAS), which commenced in 2005, is a further “Asian” initiative – and Australia’s Coalition government deserves credit for taking Australia into this meeting (at a time when the United States was not a member) instead of merely defending APEC’s credentials.

What we do not know today is whether United States membership (beginning this year) will lift the importance of the EAS or lead to an even greater role for the all-Asian ASEAN + 3.

Assuming that even within the EAS the “Asian Century” will entail a reduced United States influence, Australian diplomacy will need to build coalitions with one group or another of Asian states.

How we engage

Australia participates in numerous forums in Asia to firm up engagement in the region. By Gobierno de Chile/Wikimedia Commons

The phrase “engaging with Asia” – used so often in the past, especially by those concerned that Australian governments were too narrowly focused on the United States – is now redundant. The issue is where and how we engage more closely.

This will be a challenge for government – but also for an Australian community which still tends not to think beyond the United States alliance when contemplating Australia’s international positioning.

If we are not to be a “lonely country” – and this would be an uncomfortable fate – Australians will also need to be prudent in handling our neighbours.

Abusing Malaysia, for instance, does not help to promote the type of regional cooperation we need to handle refugee flows.

The “Asian Century” invokes more than a shift in strategic and economic power. Will English remain the dominant language of inter-state conversation? Will the democracy and “human rights” discourse lose legitimacy when not endorsed by United States dominance?

International relations analysts have already begun to wonder whether the regional order in Asia could be increasingly shaped by older, Asian hierarchical models rather traditional national sovereignty.

Business culture is another area that may demand adjustment – not, as some fear, by a retreat into amorality but perhaps by a greater willingness to take account of Asian viewpoints.

If we are to seek more investment opportunities in Asia – and so far Australians have focused on trade, which is less demanding – there will be a need for sociological as well as economic knowledge.

Change without change

The “Asian Century” does not call for a reinvention of the Australian community – we would be wrong to fear an assault on our national values and institutions.

But it is necessary to assess our national skill-set and our mental preparation. What we have now is an Australian community in which almost no one learns an Asian language, and the study of Asian societies and histories is virtually ignored in our schools. This cannot be a good basis for the task ahead.

This is the first part of our Australia in Asia series. To read the other parts, follow these links:

- Part one: Is Australia ready for the “Asian Century”

- Part two: Australia in Asia: How to keep the peace and ensure regional security

- Part three: The lucky, lazy country shows how not to win friends in Asia

- Part four: How Australian aid in Asia can benefit those at home

- Part five: Learning to live in the Asian Century

- Part six: Colombo plan: An initiative that brought Australia and Asia together

- Part seven: Why Australia’s trade relationship with China remains at ground level

- Part eight: Finding the balance between India and China in the Asian ‘concert of powers’