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How will Australia rebalance its trade, security relations?

by Ramesh Thakur

In a paper in Canberra last Aug. 31, Singapore professor Kishore Mahbubani made a thought-provoking argument: “By the logic of geography, the continent of Australia should have been populated with Asians. Instead, by an accident of history, Australia has been predominantly populated with Westerners.” But “the logic of cultural identity cannot” indefinitely “trump hard geopolitical considerations.”

Australia’s historical and cultural links to Europe and America enhance its value to Asian countries; propinquity to Asia increases its usefulness to Western countries. Multicultural diversity at home underpins the breadth and depth of these relationships abroad. It gives Australia European and Asian language skills, cross-cultural expertise and international family and social connections.

Asia has always been central to the definition of Australian identity. For most of Australia’s history as a European settler society, Asia as the “other” was the point of reference for defining Australia as the “self.” Its historical memories, cultural antecedents and the ideas on which its society was constructed were all European. But Australia was not part of Europe, and its distinctive identity could only be interpreted with reference to the geographical dislocation from Europe on the edge of Asia.

By the end of the last century, Australia stood at the crossroads of its history and geography. The tussle between collective memory and collective destiny called for wrenching intellectual and emotional adjustments whose burden fell unevenly on Asians and Australians.

Prime Minister John Howard’s dominant mantra was Australia did not have to choose between Europe and Asia. Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s White Paper (an unfortunate term on reflection), “Australia in the Asian Century,” proclaims that Australia’s destiny is tied to its geography.

Australia’s train of interests in this century are far-flung and diverse. How does it reconcile the civilizational pull of European heritage, the security imperatives of the U.S. alliance, the gravitational pull of Indo-Pacific geography, the trading ties to East Asia, a global outlook and bilaterally specific content of its international identity?

One major obstacle to Australia’s place in Asia is resistance by Asians to accepting it. Self-evidently, Australians are not Asians in the racial sense. It is equally self-evident, however, that Australia is Asian in the geopolitical sense. Thus while Australia’s sentimental attachments and emotional pulls are to Europe, its geographical identity and gravitational pulls are to Asia. The burden of mutual adjustment to this not always comfortable reality falls unevenly on Asians and Australians.

A second source of tensions is that for the first time in its history, security imperatives collide with those of trade. While Australia’s primary security relationship is with the U.S.-led West, its trade relations and determinants are with China in particular and Asia in general.

A pressing foreign policy challenge is how to balance the past, present and future, the trade and security interests, the requirement for sustaining a prosperous lifestyle with the commitment to political values that are alien to China, etc.

From the 1950s into the 1980s, the primary focus of Australia’s engagement with Asia was Southeast Asia, responding to and managing the independence of Indonesia, the Malayan emergency, the Malaysian-Indonesian confrontation, the Indochina wars and refugees, the triumph of communism in Indochina, the consolidation of Southeast Asian identity under the newly created ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and the rise to middle-income prosperity of millions of people in that region. The burst of the Japan bubble was quickly followed by the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. In the meantime, though, China had begun its awesome journey back to the center of world affairs as a major player and was shadowed a dozen years behind by India.

The U.S. National Intelligence Council issued its quadrennial report on global trends, published in advance of each new administration taking office in Washington, in December. It maps the world out to 2030 in the considered view of 16 intelligence agencies. In a radically transformed world, there will not be any hegemonic power. Instead power will be dispersed among states, and diffused from states to informal networks and individuals.

The era of Western ascendancy since 1750 and of U.S. ascendancy known as Pax Americana that began in 1945, the report argues, is coming to an end. By 2030 Asia will be bigger in economic size and strategic weight than Europe and the U.S. combined. But the U.S. will remain the first among equals with an unmatched edge in the ability to form coalitions of allies and friends and mobilize networks of civil society actors and individuals.

Straight-line projections tend to be as unreliable in the long run as they are unavoidable for setting policy in the short term. Within that caveat, we can be reasonably confident that Asia’s destiny will be shaped by the Big Three of China, India and Japan. The strategic footprint of their relations with one another and with the United States will cover the world. Cooperation between them will promote peace and underwrite prosperity in Asia. Rivalry and conflict will roil the world. For reasons of geography, population and geopolitics, Indonesia is no less important for Australian interests.

India has a rugged and resilient but flawed democracy; Japan is a stable and mature democracy; China pursues market-led economic growth within tight political centralism by the Communist Party. India’s legitimacy is rooted in a political model unique in human history in scale and poverty, China’s in economic success without precedent in scale and pace, and Japan’s in a combination of political democracy and per capita income that is unique in Asia. China uses political control and the heavy hand of the state to forestall and suppress challenges and uprisings, India uses procrastination and indecisiveness to ride out and exhaust most challenges and insurgencies, and Japan is largely free of such challenges.

China’s billion-strong population and growing power and wealth set the strategic context for regional security and economic relations. India’s rising power and wealth in China’s shadow by a dozen years, Japan’s prolonged economic slump and dysfunctional politics, the U.S. promise of a pivot back to Asia, and ASEAN’s position as the only standing regional organization that can facilitate and underwrite security dialogues in Asia-Pacific, are the strategic parameters within which regional countries must calibrate their foreign and security policies.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is the director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. (ramesh.thakur@anu.edu.au)