Australia getting ready to position itself somewhat closer to its Asian neighbours

Opinion: Traditional alliance with US competing with geographic factors

Former prime minister Paul Keating: lost the argument back in the 1990s.

Former prime minister Paul Keating: lost the argument back in the 1990s.


Australia’s Asia did not figure much in its federal election campaign, but the issue is squarely there in the preoccupation with the economy and jobs – not to mention asylum seekers. Today’s victor will govern knowing the region increasingly determines Australia’s prosperity and security in the so-called “Asian century”.

This is not just a foreign policy matter but an existential one for the world’s twelfth largest economy and a middle power chairing next year’s Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane.

More than half its exports go to China, Japan or South Korea. The export boom of minerals to China insulated Australia from the global financial crisis and is now tailing off, risking economic difficulties. Recent white papers on foreign policy and defence rank these states, together with India and Indonesia as priority partners. A very well-informed Australian scholarly and policy community on Asian affairs ensures those who need to know about its neighbours do so effectively (easily accessed through the East Asia Forum and Lowy Institute websites).

Official policy is committed to developing closer cultural, linguistic and educational ties with Asian states alongside the established diplomatic, political and economic ones. Legal immigration brings in many more Asians; they comprise a third of the more than five million Australians born elsewhere out of a total population of 21.5 million. The 2011 census shows Mandarin has overtaken Italian as the second language most often spoken at home after English. Urban Australia’s multiculturalism is now a more Asian affair (always remembering that its Aboriginal population has been there for 40,000 years).

But Australia remains an awkward Asian nation, stuck between its Anglo-Celtic and southern European immigrant history, Anglophone culture and strategic alliance with the United States that compete with the growing Asian imperatives. This can readily be seen in its continuing debates about cultural inheritance and future role and whether it should be a constitutional monarchy or a republic. For most Asians Australia is an outsider, an agent of the west and a competitor, notwithstanding its shifting identity. But there are many signs such attitudes can and will change as a result of developing economic and political ties with Asian leaderships, notably Indonesia and China. These can build a sense that Australia is a trustworthy partner. Tony Abbott, the likely victor as leader of the conservative Liberals, insists if he wins his first visits abroad will be to Indonesia, China, Japan and South Korea rather than Washington or London. This is partly to fend off comments from Kevin Rudd, Labor Party leader, mocking Abbott’s previous championing of the Anglosphere and the British connection.

The two parties divide on these orientations, highlighted by Rudd’s impressive academic, linguistic and political expertise on China as prime minister and foreign minister. But since he displaced Julia Gillard at party leader in July Rudd has been resolutely domestic, an internationalist turned nationalist as one commentator put it, typified by his race to the bottom with Abbott on asylum-seeking boat people mostly departing from Indonesia, who will be sent automatically to Papua New Guinea.

There is little or no party division, however, on Australia’s most important international affiliation – its strategic alliance with the United States. It was reinforced in north Australia by 2,500 US marines and deeper security ties with Washington. Australia thereby becomes part of the wider security rebalancing and jostling for position that sees states like Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines suspicious of Chinese power moving closer to the US.

How compatible this is with Australia’s equally strategic orientation towards China’s huge economic strength troubles critics of the new base deal like former prime minister Paul Keating. He lost the political and cultural argument about Australia as an Asian rather than an Anglocentric state in the 1990s debate on a republic, but continues to emphasise this is where Australia’s future lies. Others, like Rudd, say the two orientations are complementary. His advisers are convinced US policy is intended to engage not contain China and believe Washington understands Australian policy must follow its own interests with Beijing. Abbott would probably agree; but there are genuine differences of emphasis between the two parties, echoing those between Obama and the Republicans. One way or another Australia’s increasing involvement in the region will give it a larger role in the Asian debate on these questions.

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