Asia Pivot Imperative as West Fades

By Ramesh Thakur

In a stimulating and provocative paper, Singapore academic Kishore Mahbubani argues that "by the logic of geography, the continent of Australia should have been populated with Asians. Instead, by an accident of history, Australia has been predominantly populated with Westerners", but "the logic of cultural identity cannot" indefinitely "trump hard geopolitical considerations".

Asia has always been central to the definition of Australian identity. For most of Australia's history as a European settler society, Asia as the "other" was the point of reference for defining Australia as the "self".

Its historical memories, cultural antecedents and the ideas on which its society was constructed were all European, but Australia was not part of Europe and its distinctive identity could be interpreted only with reference to the geographical dislocation from Europe, on the edge of Asia.

By the end of the last century, Australia stood at the crossroads of its history and geography. The tussle between collective memory and collective destiny called for wrenching intellectual and emotional adjustments.

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John Howard's dominant mantra was Australia did not have to choose between Europe and Asia. Julia Gillard's white paper, Australia in the Asian Century, affirms that the country's destiny is tied to its geography.

Australia's train of interests this century are far-flung and diverse. How do we reconcile the civilisational pull of our European heritage, the security imperatives of our US alliance, the gravitational pull of Indo-Pacific geography, the trading ties to East Asia, a global outlook and bilaterally specific content of our international identity?

One major obstacle to Australia's place in Asia is resistance by Asians to accepting us. Self-evidently, Australians are not Asians in the racial sense. It is equally self-evident, however, that Australia is Asian in the geopolitical sense. Thus, while Australia's sentimental attachments and emotional pulls are to Europe, its geographical identity and gravitational pulls are to Asia.

The burden of mutual adjustment falls unevenly on Asians and Australians.

A second source of tensions is that for the first time in its history, the overriding security imperatives collide with primary trade determinants. A foreign policy challenge is how to balance the past, present and future, the trade and security interests, and the requirement for sustaining a prosperous lifestyle with the commitment to political values that are alien to some major trade partners.

From the 1950s into the 80s, the primary focus of Australia's engagement with Asia was Southeast Asia, responding to and managing the independence of Indonesia, the Malayan Emergency, the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation, the Indochina wars and refugees, the triumph of communism in Indochina, the consolidation of Southeast Asian identity under the newly created ASEAN, and the rise to middle-income prosperity of millions of people in the region.

The bursting of the Japan bubble was quickly followed by the Asian financial crisis of the late 90s. In the meantime, China had begun its journey back to the centre of world affairs as a major player and was shadowed a dozen years behind by India.

The US National Intelligence Council issued its quadrennial report on global trends, published in advance of each new administration taking office in Washington, last month. It maps the world out to 2030 in the considered view of 16 intelligence agencies.

In a radically transformed world, there will not be any hegemonic power. Instead, power will be dispersed among states, and diffused from states to informal networks and individuals.

The era of Western ascendancy since 1750 and of US ascendancy known as Pax Americana that began in 1945, the report argues, is coming to an end. By 2030, Asia will be bigger in economic size and strategic weight than Europe and the US combined. But the US will remain first among equals and it will retain an unmatched edge in the ability to form coalitions of allies and friends, and mobilise networks of civil society actors and individuals.

Straight-line projections tend to be as unreliable in the long run as they are unavoidable for setting policy in the short term. Within that caveat, we can be reasonably confident that Asia's destiny will be shaped by the Big Three of China, India and Japan. The strategic footprint of their relations with one another and with the US will cover the world. Co-operation between them will promote peace and underwrite prosperity in Asia. Rivalry and conflict will roil the world.

For reasons of geography, population and geopolitics, Indonesia is no less important to Australian interests.

China's billion-strong population, growing power and wealth, and rising self-confidence, with the built-in danger of hubris, set the strategic context for regional security and economic relations.

India's rising power and wealth in China's shadow, Japan's prolonged economic slump and dysfunctional politics, the US pivot back to Asia (if it ever left), and ASEAN's position as the only standing regional organisation that can facilitate and underwrite security dialogues in the Asia-Pacific, are the strategic parameters within which regional countries must calibrate their foreign and security policies.

Ramesh Thakur is the director of the Centre for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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