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Is this the end of the ‘Asian century’?

Going, going: the Abbott government appears to have ditched the centrepiece of the Gillard government’s foreign policy, the Australia in the Asian Century white paper. AAP/Paul Miller

In case you missed the news, the “Asian century” is over. Or it is as far as the Abbott government is concerned. In its continuing revamp of the apparatus and output of government, the Coalition has officially dumped the previous government’s white paper, Australia in the Asian Century.

After all the ballyhoo that accompanied its production and eventual launch, a year after its release one of the former Labor government’s signature policies has been consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history — or the National Library’s archives, as it is more politely known.

It has rapidly become the conventional wisdom that the ALP was more concerned with form than substance. Poorly conceived, badly executed, big picture initiatives with inadequate follow through were the hallmarks of a party continually at war with itself.

There is something in this criticism, of course, which is why the Asian century white paper represented a potentially significant political narrative around which warring factions might unite. After all, not only was the very idea of “engagement with Asia” one that the Hawke-Keating governments largely created, but the Gillard government might have expected to bask in the afterglow of real earlier achievements.

As we now know, of course, things didn’t quite work out that way. For the Gillard government’s growing army of critics, the white paper was yet another example of lofty rhetoric with little of substance committed to actually implementing policy. The policies themselves were often dismissed as statements of the bleeding obvious or contradictory manifestations of potentially incompatible strategic and economic priorities.

The question that emerges at this point is not so much whether the white paper’s proposals were as badly thought through and/or resourced as some would have us believe, but what the production and subsequent very public abandonment of such a high profile initiative tells us about foreign affairs.

In short, should we care? At the risk of cliché, do actions speak louder than words?

Part of the answer to that depends on who is listening. White papers in particular have potentially multiple audiences, a very important part of which is international. These sort of documents are a very public ventilation of government thinking and priorities. Sometimes these make uncomfortable and convoluted reading. Deciding how to describe the relationship with China is the quintessential case in point.

Despite some tortuously ambiguous language and the occasional unforced error — the 2009 defence white paper’s nomination of China as a possible strategic threat, for example — these documents have their uses. Letting China know that the policymaking community is a bit conflicted may not be a bad thing. Foreign policymaking is an art not a science, and a politically-charged one at that. If those on the receiving end get a sense of its complex dynamics they may be less surprised by the occasional gaffe.

The contrast with China’s foreign policy process is instructive. No-one fully understands quite why China’s foreign policy as veered from being “charming” to alarming over the last couple of years, although we can make educated guesses. The fact that China is becoming at least slightly more transparent in this regard, however, is a welcome development and suggests just how useful international norms and peer pressure can be.

This is one reason why we should encourage the continuing production of white papers like Australia in the Asian Century. For all its faults, it is a useful insight into government thinking and a chance to actually invite input and critique from interested parties. How can we expect the Chinese to do this sort of thing if we are not prepared to model best transparent practice ourselves?

Tony Abbott has already made moves towards Asia early in his term in office, including praising Chinese president Xi Jinping (2R). EPA/Barbara Walton

Of course, we don’t know that the Abbott government’s decision to junk Labor’s legacy amounts to anything more than putting yet more distance between itself and its political opponents. However, the decision not to reveal the numbers of asylum seekers reaching our shores, and the rigid discipline being applied to stop policy freelancing suggest that openness and transparency are unlikely to be the watchwords of the Abbott era.

This would be a mistake. The great redeeming feature of Paul Keating’s much-maligned and electorally disastrous “big picture” approach to Asian engagement was the impact it had on domestic politics. Who now doubts that Australia’s future is intimately bound-up with that of our immediate neighbourhood? While not many people may remember — much less have read — the Garnaut report of 1989, it made a case for economic integration with the region that has underpinned public policy ever since.

Big ideas can have an impact. They ultimately help to define both policy and more generalised attitudes, for better or worse. There may not be too many debates in public bars across the land about the merits of the Asian century white paper, but there may not be quite so much of the visceral anti-Asianism that propelled Pauline Hanson to unwanted and unmerited prominence either.

Given the Liberal Party’s patchy historical track record in this area, a few more set-piece declarations of foreign policy goals and priorities wouldn’t go amiss. Deciding how to deal with Chinese investment while keeping the National Party onside will be a major statement of the government’s priorities and one about which debate cannot be shut down.

Likewise, thinking about how to address Australia’s two-speed economy is — or ought to be — a major public policy priority. Publicly ventilating these sorts of issues might be one way of both helping to define them and giving legitimacy to the outcome.

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