A bold new book lambasts Australia’s ignorant and lazy approach to Asia, writes Greg Sheridan
MICHAEL Wesley, the director of the Lowy Institute, is the best of the international relations academics working in Australian universities and think tanks. He is a most unusual combination of practitioner and thinker.
He has four important virtues: he gives primacy to the evidence; he is not tied to a rigid ideological position or group-think dynamic; he writes clearly and robustly, mostly in the active voice; and his mind is tethered to common sense. You have no idea how rare these virtues are in the world of academic international relations.
Wesley’s new book, There Goes the Neighbourhood, is written for a general audience, and it is bold and strong. His thesis is relatively simple: the rise of the Asian giants is changing fundamentally Australia’s international environment and this will have great consequences for us strategically, economically and culturally.
This dynamic will produce a world that is completely unfamiliar to us and uniquely challenging. The giants in Wesley’s estimation are primarily China and India but, intelligently, he also includes Indonesia and Vietnam. He argues that the surge of these nations is quite different from the earlier growth of the Asian tigers — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore — and that the difference is simple: size.
If China and India keep up anything like their recent economic growth rates they will change the basic shape of the world economy, and of global security equations, too.
Wesley is too smart to fall into the common Australian trap of reducing the whole of Asia to China. He rightly explores the way the rise of other Asian powers, especially India, Indonesia and Vietnam, will constrain China. The other Asian giants will look to the US in part to balance China. They will not accept Chinese hegemony in the region or Chinese dominance of themselves.
This is all common sense on Wesley’s part, but it is remarkably uncommon in much Australian analysis. Wesley avoids all the simplistic and unrealistic binary choices between China and the US that Hugh White, for example, posed in his September 2010 Quarterly Essay, ‘‘ Power Shift: Australia’s Future Between Washington and Beijing’’.
Because Wesley is not interested in fashioning a cliche, or a slogan, or even in mobilising support for an ideological program, he acknowledges the complexity of Asia’s emerging power equations.
He does argue that the growth of intraAsian trade, and the spectacular emergence of India, renders the term Asia-Pacific somewhat obsolete, and prefers instead Indo-Pacific, a reasonable descriptive point.
The second half of Wesley’s argument is that Australia is not well prepared for this new and newly complex environment. The study of Asian languages apart from Chinese is falling (and even the study of Chinese in Australia is dominated by students of Chinese ethnic background); we have the smallest diplomatic service of any but four of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development-allied developed nations.
Wesley argues convincingly that we are lazy and uninformed about Asia and, despite the presence of Asian migrants and students, we have made no significant cultural or political adjustment to the rise of our neighbours. Our foreign policy is essentially the same as it was in the 1950s. Australia is ‘‘ a nation of insular internationalists’’ that has continued to prosper because of a favourable global environment. We ignored the ‘‘ advice of the 1990s — that to cope with Asia, Australians need to change’’, but prospered anyway. However Australia is entering a strange new world, a world for which it is nowhere near psychologically or attitudinally prepared.
Wesley does not argue that we should abandon the US to seek favour with China or even with some other combination of Asian powers. Instead he understands that the US will remain a central player in Asian security and economics. However, he does believe that most of the features of our environment that have reassured us in the past will disappear or decline in importance. Our economy will be smaller in relation to our neighbours than it has been; our technological edge will erode and eventually disappear; our alliance with the US will be less decisively advantageous; and population relativities will move inexorably against us.
Nonetheless, the new environment will afford certain opportunities. We will be part of a region where big powers will be in competition for prestige, markets and allies, and if we are clever we can play this astutely.
This is the best book I have read on Australian foreign policy for a very long time and it deserves a wide readership. Much of Wesley’s main thesis is unarguable. Having said that, I should point out what I think are a few shortcomings or even mistakes.
Wesley argues that we may not be able to rely in the future on the detailed American attention we have assumed in the past. Then almost in the next breath he argues that the
US will be locked in a fierce competition for influence in the region. If that is the case, Washington is surely at least equally likely to pay us more attention rather than less.
But there is a problem more generally with Wesley’s treatment of the US. He is assuredly not anti-American and his book is free of the juvenile, Oedipal hostilities to Washington displayed by so many Australian international affairs writers.
Nonetheless, Wesley fails to treat the US systematically in this book. He is right to say Australia is ignorant and lazy about Asia. This is a failure of Australia’s leadership. But it is also a failure of Australia’s Asianists. One of the reasons they have failed is because they do not intelligently integrate the US into their Asian paradigm. This means what they write is rarely useful to policy-makers or the public because it does not accurately describe the reality of Asia.
In a series of books I wrote about Asia in the 1990s, I tried very hard to consider the US as an Asian nation. If you’re considering Asian values, for example, you have to consider the role of American values in the formation of Asian values. If you are considering Asian leaders, you have to consider American leaders because they lead the most powerful nation in Asia. Asian culture cannot be considered without its American dimension. And so on.
The rise of China, India and the others is fascinating but it does not render this fundamental analytical requirement any less necessary. If anything, it is more important than ever because it is even more complex in the situation Wesley is describing. Similarly, at one point Wesley writes of ‘‘ population ageing and resource exhaustion’’ as likely to reduce the lead of Europe and the US by the 2020s and 30s. But conflating the US and Europe in this way is a basic analytical mistake. The population dynamics for Europe and the US are entirely contradictory. By 2050 the US population will be much bigger, relative to China’s population, than it is today, but the US population will be younger than China’s population. That is not true of Europe.
I have all kinds of other minor quibbles. Wesley is absolutely right to lambast the laziness of Australian policy towards Asia today. But he is wrong to include previous generations of Australians in this spray. It was indeed good fortune that the greatest power in the world came from the same cultural background as Australia. But it still took immense skill for Australian leaders to manoeuvre the US alliance into existence. Australian statecraft towards Asia today is pretty feeble, but it was pretty good under Alfred Deakin, under Percy Spender and on many other occasions.
Similarly, while Wesley’s broad thesis that we are not preparing for the time of the Asian giants is true, it is wrong to say this will be the most challenging international environment we have faced. The environment of 1941-42 was fairly daunting and for much of the Cold War we were a priority nuclear target for the Soviet Union.
Finally, Wesley’s analysis is strong but his policy recommendations, apart from beefing up Asian language study and the diplomatic service, are a bit weak, which may suggest that something like existing policy, but executed infinitely more robustly, may be what is required. And he resists the obvious policy conclusion of much of his analysis, that to mitigate the difficult emerging dynamics we need to engage in our own population build-up as rapidly as possible.
For all that, this is a brilliant, timely, boldly written, clear-headed analysis of Australia’s position in Asia, a rare and extremely valuable addition to a surprisingly flaccid national debate. Greg Sheridan is The Australian’s foreign editor and author of four books about Asia.