A bold new book lam­basts Aus­tralia’s ig­no­rant and lazy ap­proach to Asia, writes Greg Sheri­dan

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.


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