Perth comes out of iso­la­tion to take cer­tain stage

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - By KARL WIL­SON karl­wil­son@chi­nadai­lya­

Perth, the cap­i­tal of Western Aus­tralia, sits where the Swan River meets the south­west coast.

With fewer than 2 mil­lion peo­ple, a re­lax­ing life­style, sun­shine for most of the year and good wine, it is a nat­u­ral draw for peo­ple want­ing to es­cape the rat race of the eastern states.

So why should any­one think the coun­try's most iso­lated cap­i­tal is the ideal lo­ca­tion for a ma­jor re­gional think tank?

For­mer US sec­re­tary of state Hil­lary Clin­ton did. Four years ago, the cur­rent Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee an­nounced the set­ting up of the Perth USAsia Cen­tre at the Univer­sity of Western Aus­tralia.

Pro­fes­sor Gor­don Flake, the US-born CEO of the cen­ter since 2014, is also now an advocate for the city.

He was on the policy think tank’s radar hav­ing turned down a job in Syd­ney say­ing he was an “Asian spe­cial­ist”, and wanted some­thing that would com­bine his ex­per­tise and chal­lenge him.

For the best part of 25 years, Flake was at the top of his pro­fes­sion in Wash­ing­ton DC.

A spe­cial­ist in North Asian af­fairs, he reck­oned he had clocked up more than 3 mil­lion hours fly­ing back and forth be­tween Wash­ing­ton and China, South Korea and Ja­pan.

So why pack it all in and re­lo­cate thou­sands of miles away to Perth?

Speak­ing in his of­fice at the Univer­sity of Western Aus­tralia, Flake said: “It’s not the sort of tra­jec­tory you would expect from some­one who has spent most of his life work­ing in Wash­ing­ton DC for some of the best think tanks in the world, is it?

“I could find Perth on a map but that’s about it. I knew noth­ing about Western Aus­tralia or the re­sources boom.”

He said most think tanks are found in the ma­jor cap­i­tals of the world.

“That is where policy is usu­ally shaped and it is where you find peo­ple seek­ing to in­flu­ence the policy de­bate.

“Most of my con­tacts in Aus­tralia were ei­ther in Can­berra or the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity. Perth didn’t even fig­ure on the radar.”

So when he was pre­sented with a “great po­si­tion” to head up a new think tank in Aus­tralia with an Asian fo­cus, it roused Flake’s in­ter­est.

Deep down, Flake ad­mited he had a yearn­ing to go west. Af­ter all he was born in New Mex­ico, raised in Ari­zona and missed the bright, blue open skies of the Amer­i­can west.

He had no idea he would find him­self half­way around the world in Perth.

“My wife came down and she liked Perth, so that clinched the deal,” he said smil­ing.

“Perth has beau­ti­ful weather and it is a won­der­ful city to live in. It doesn’t have the con­ges­tion or pol­lu­tion prob­lems that other cities have, and it is right in what I like to call ‘the zone’.”

The more he looked into the job, the more ap­peal­ing it be­came, he said.

“True, Perth doesn’t fig­ure in in­ter­na­tional policy cir­cles, but I can be in Jakarta in four hours, Sin­ga­pore in five. They are both closer than Syd­ney or Can­berra and in the right time zone.”

If the last 25 years was de­fined by the eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment of China, the next, at least by Flake’s reck­on­ing, will be de­fined by the eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment of the Asian south­west — India and the 10-na­tion As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions bloc.

“If you think about it, Perth is ideally suited to take full ad­van­tage of this de­vel­op­ment and it sits in the same time zone,” he said.

The Perth USAsia Cen­tre is a co­op­er­a­tive ven­ture be­tween the Aus­tralian fed­eral govern­ment, the Western Aus­tralian govern­ment, the Univer­sity of Western Aus­tralia and the pri­vate sec­tor.

Since its in­cep­tion, the cen­ter has made sig­nif­i­cant in­roads in the re­gion and has man­aged to put to­gether a distin­guished board that in­cludes the for­mer South Aus­tralian pre­mier John Olsen as chair, Kim Bea­z­ley, a for­mer deputy prime minister, and Stephen Smith, a for­mer Aus­tralian de­fense minister and for­eign af­fairs minister.

The Perth USAsia Cen­tre com­ple­ments the United States Stud­ies Cen­tre, which was es­tab­lished at Syd­ney Univer­sity in 2006 with a $25 mil­lion en­dow­ment.

“Our found­ing ra­tio­nale is that you can­not un­der­stand the Aus­tralia-US al­liance re­la­tion­ship — de­fense, security co­op­er­a­tion, in­vest­ment, trade — with­out un­der­stand­ing de­vel­op­ments in Asia,” said Flake.

“On the flip side, you can­not un­der­stand Aus­tralia’s re­la­tion­ship with Asia un­less you un­der­stand its re­la­tion­ship with the US.”

Flake said that China’s emer­gence as an eco­nomic and mil­i­tary power has added a new di­men­sion to that re­la­tion­ship.

He said it was “a fine balance” not unique to Aus­tralia: Get­ting it right was a chal­lenge for most coun­tries in the re­gion.

‘Since the end of World War II, the re­gion, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia, has re­lied on the US which has un­der­writ­ten sta­bil­ity and the eco­nomic sta­bil­ity that has come with it.”

The big ques­tion is, he asked, how do you balance that sta­bil­ity with the emer­gence of China?

“It is a com­plex ques­tion. It’s not as sim­ple as some would like to paint it.”

Un­der­stand­ing that ques­tion un­der­lines the ra­tio­nale be­hind the cen­ter and its es­tab­lish­ment in Perth.

For more than 100 years the peo­ple of Western Aus­tralia have felt de­tached from the rest of the coun­try.

Many peo­ple view the area as “iso­lated and ir­rel­e­vant”, Flake said, but he be­lieves that at­ti­tude is fast chang­ing.

One of his aims is to change the fo­cus of think­ing about Aus­tralia from “lon­gi­tu­di­nal to lat­i­tu­di­nal” and “shift the fo­cus to our north”.

“If you think about it that way, Perth is not iso­lated,” he said.

“It is in the same time zone as Asia, closer to Asia and is part of Asia. This gives us a strong man­date.”

The cen­ter is bring­ing to­gether some of the best minds from five uni­ver­si­ties around Perth and the re­gion, he said.

“It is my firm be­lief the next 25 years will be de­fined by South­east and South Asia, and Perth is ideally placed. It will trans­form Perth from be­ing an iso­lated out­post to be­com­ing a new cen­ter of grav­ity.

“If you want to un­der­stand China and its role in the re­gion, you go to Beijing. If you want to un­der­stand Ja­pan’s role in North Asia, you go to Tokyo. You go to Seoul to un­der­stand the Korean Penin­sula and Sin­ga­pore for ASEAN.

“Perth sits at the cen­ter of South Asia and South­east Asia and is well placed to fo­cus on this growth.”

Our found­ing ra­tio­nale is that you can­not un­der­stand the Aus­trali­aUS al­liance re­la­tion­ship with­out un­der­stand­ing de­vel­op­ments in Asia.” Cen­tre CEO of Perth USAsia

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