The ‘lucky, lazy country’ shows how not to win friends in Asia

Julia Gillard has to strike a balance between forging meaningful links with Asian countries, and managing relationships with older allies. EPA/Rungroj Yongrit

AUSTRALIA IN ASIA: In the third part of our series, former diplomat Alison Broinowski of the Australian National University examines our rocky relationship with our Asian neighbours.

“Australia hasn’t been here before,” declared the Prime Minister as she announced a White Paper preparing the country for the “Asian Century.” We have, in fact. Her conceptual shift, and sudden interest in the affairs of our Asian neighbours are welcome, but Julia Gillard needs to catch up quickly.

The Asian century is already eleven years old. But for much longer than that, observers in many countries have been charting the “irresistible shift of global power to the East”, as Professor Kishore Mahbubani described in essays in the 1990s and his subsequent book.

Land of opportunity

Australia, of course, has always been located where it is, and where our great and powerful friends are not.

Ever since the arrival of the first fleet in 1788, that isolation has been deplored by some, while for others, proximity to Asia has been opportune and stimulating.

Many Australian politicians have tried to foster greater engagement with Asia. Former minister for external affairs, RG Casey cultivated friends and neighbours, as Prime Minister Gough Whitlam proposed an Asian Forum, his successors Bob Hawke and Paul Keating fostered the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and Kevin Rudd briefly flew an Asia-Pacific community kite.

Rediscovering Asia

Although the “Asian century” was a newfound notion for Treasury in May this year, the process of Australia-Asia accommodation and acceptance has gone on for much longer.

Yet every generation of Australian leaders, it seems, has to rediscover Asia.

Between the peaks of enthusiasm there have been plenty of troughs, when Australians reacted to Asia with degrees of fear, ignorance, and hostility.

But time and again, from the 1960s on, as the Japanese miracle was succeeded by the fast growth of Asian tigers and dragons, and then by the rise of China and India, one Asian economy after another came to the rescue of the lucky, lazy country that happened always to be in the right region at the right time.

Educating Australia

The process was not only economic. From the 1960s, Australians eagerly went to Asian countries to study languages and cultures.

Under Fraser and Hawke, at least, we took in refugees from our Asian wars who then and since have successfully turned into Australian citizens.

Yet the more Australia prospers from Asian demand for our resources, goods and services, the less empathy we seem to display towards our region.

We still invest more elsewhere. We waste our wealth on unwinnable wars of our allies’ making, without consulting others in the region about why they see no need to fight them.

How not to win friends

We insult neighbouring countries such as Malaysia by choosing them as the most unappealing places of deportation, even while we breach the international obligations we urge them to uphold.

We also allow a generation of teachers of Asian languages and cultures to age without replacement. Not to mention letting students who are not native speakers drop Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian as if there’s no tomorrow.

Yet even as our higher education sector struggles and our claim to expertise in Asian affairs crumbles, we assume that our long run of economic luck entitles us to influence in the region.

In this, and in standing for election to the UN Security Council, Australia is presuming a lot on our reputation.

Bad reputation

Australians who follow the Asian discourse, live in the region, or visit regularly, not just as tourists, know that our reputation in Asian countries falls short of our common expectations.

Australia is seen in the region as hostile, threatening and unwelcoming, and disengaged from Asian affairs, says John McCarthy, formerly Ambassador to five Asian countries, and most recently Our Man in India.

Australians are “insular internationalists” who travel but are seen to ignore the world, says Michael Wesley, one of our keenest foreign policy minds.

The expertise in international affairs of former leaders Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull was worthless, he adds, noting that Gillard and Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott, have next to none.

If leaders on both sides of politics understood how Australians’ ignorance and presumption grate in Asian countries, they would recognise that we view our reputation as we wish it to be, not as it is.

Things can change

But stereotypes, by definition out of date, can be changed by current realities. As Australia changes, perceptions in the region will catch up, particularly if we improve our public and cultural diplomacy and our international broadcasting. We have to show that we believe projecting Australia in Asian countries is not a waste of time and money.

If Ken Henry’s White Paper acknowledges these unpalatable truths, and recommends appropriate action, he will have done Australia a great service.

Weak allies

The Prime Minister’s key proposition is that Australia can “stand strongly in our changing region”, while simultaneously having an “ally in Washington and respect in Beijing”.

The tyranny of a weak American ally must also be interrogated by Dr Henry, who will understand that the US debt, and hence indirectly America’s military role in the region, is funded by China, our putative enemy.

In late September the Chinese People’s Daily warned unnamed countries which “think as long as they can balance China with the help of the United States military power, they are free to do whatever they want” may have another think coming.

That includes what China classifies as “small and weak countries” like Australia.

It is the stakes that are new here, not the century nor Australia’s place in Asia.

This is the third 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’