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Julia Gillard is getting it wrong on Asia

Julia Gillard and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at last week’s nuclear summit in Seoul. AAP/EPA

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s recent performance in South Korea highlights once again the dangers of not taking Asia seriously.

At a speech at a university, Gillard apparently stuck directly to script even when questions from ordinary citizens, though relevant, diverged slightly. Each question she was asked was answered with a reference to sharing South Korea’s concerns about security. What that has to do with an audience member’s question on racism experienced by her friend(s) in Australia, I have no idea.

According to a news report audience members were left bewildered and confused. I felt much the same.

Relations with our Asian neighbours are of paramount importance, particularly as US hegemony erodes and our capacity for soft power suffers. Gillard’s statements in Asia and elsewhere, the decision to ban live exports to Indonesia including her Government’s statements about Wikileaks and their support for the ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) treaty are posing serious dangers to our global standing among people abroad who are put off by her policy direction.

Taken as a whole one can surmise that despite acknowledging the Asian Century we are not properly prepared for it. Our recent leaders faced and continue to face obstacles to their soft power producing real world positive results. Soft power refers to the power to achieve objectives through mutual respect and co-operation as opposed to military or “hard power”.

The problem is that our interactions with Asia continue to take place in a climate informed by Orientalist thinking in the sense that Edward Said advanced it. There is a pervading feeling that we hold a superior position to our Asian neighbours. That we hold all of the answers and that our pathways are the road others are best advised to travel.

Most unfortunately, for all the importance the Asia region holds to Australia, we seriously do not understand it. We are by and large Asia illiterate. As a result, discussions, at our peril, begin with the tacit assumption that our goals are different and our attitude and conduct only serves to emphasise that difference.

The Prime Minister continues to talk at but not to and certainly not together with the countries we most need to befriend for the successful advancement of our national interest on the rapidly evolving world stage. The shift to the East sure to be the defining characteristic of the 21st century.

On the question of Asia literacy, the solution is not simple but the beginnings of a better way forward can be orchestrated. Cultural competence needs to be at the centre of any educational programs and training. It is not enough to speak Asian languages because words alone are not effective conveyors of meaning. The cadence, body language and respect for the historical story of each society needs to become second nature.

When this happens we step down from our proverbial pedestal and engage more openly and constructively with the countries that, quite frankly, will matter more to us in the future than the United States. A fact as yet not appropriately acknowledged by the Prime Minister to the public.

Countries like China and Japan want to be assured that we value them all as allies and friends. Actions speak louder than words and the actions have been misdirected, such as the decision to accept US Marines based in Darwin.

The United States is now seeking our cooperation in using our Cocos Islands territory as a place from which to launch controversial military surveillance drones. All signs point to the government accepting this proposal. The support will come and the impetus behind that forthcoming decision can be traced to Gillard’s false belief that we need to cosy up to the United States for our own good. Too bad the “good” to come from this is hardly evident.

Our soft power, already suffering, will take another blow. Kevin Rudd was criticised for directly naming China as a threat but at least he didn’t agree to US troops flexing their diminishing muscles in our backyard.

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