Perth comes out of isolation to take certain stage
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.” Gordon Flake, CEO of Perth USAsia Centre