Asian navel gazing

The desire to “fit in” is a basic human emotion. We generally tend to want to associate with our own kind. Call it a herd instinct or whatever but we tend to prefer the company of those whose views, experiences and outlooks are similar to our own.

This is why Australia’s relationship with Asia is such a difficult set of circumstances. A glance at any global map will demonstrate very clearly that we sit, admittedly on the outer edge, of Asia and, in particular, what is known as South-East Asia. Yet our aboriginal landmass was settled/conquered/occupied by white “invaders” of British extraction a bit over two centuries ago.

The rights and wrongs of that event will fuel public debate for many generations to come, if not so long as these two separate lineages continue to interact. The initial injustice to the traditional occupiers of this land cannot be eradicated but neither is it valid to hold responsible the descendants of those who were forcibly settled here despite their trenchant protestations.

But the issue of who we are and where we fit in is a perennial preoccupation of national public life. It is an issue so complex and difficult to resolve that most of us consider it only in passing as we are individually unable to achieve any kind of meaningful rapprochement. But in a globalised, media-dominant society we cannot escape the inevitable questions of who we are and where we fit in.

Which makes a discussion document recently released by the Australian Government, entitled “Australia in the Asian Century” such a hot topic of conversation, at least among the chattering classes. There are several perspectives from which this document should be viewed.

Politically, it is a major distraction by the Labor administration of Prime Minister Julia Gillard which is desperately seeking to focus electoral attention away from negative domestic issues such as border protection, economic management, cost-of-living pressures and the impact of a widely unpopular carbon tax.

It is fair to say that the bulk of commentary on the white paper has suggested it is very broad-ranging but rather shallow; its objectives span a very lengthy timeframe and are mostly overly optimistic and aspirational; and there is negligible funding available to achieve meaningful results within current economic circumstances.

At face value, potentially a complete dud. But that does not make the document worthless nor the issue any less pressing and utterly relevant to our national strategic imperatives. If it serves only to re-focus awareness on our future engagement with our “neighbourhood” it can prove to be a constructive initiative despite its inherent flaws.

The ensuing debate has largely overlooked the challenging vision of former Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, who two decades ago tried to make Australians realise that we had to turn away from lingering love affairs with Europe and consider new romantic liaisons with Asian partners. Keating’s prescience was lost in the mire of competing domestic political priorities at the time and languished under successor PMs. But he was on the money.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this potential vision for the future is that it was conceived and elaborated entirely within Australia. The input from our region was negligible or non-existent. Not the kind of engagement framework to build bridges and better understandings.

A squandered opportunity, in other words.

Worse is that without allocated funding to achieve the many very high cost aspirational initiatives, it is clear to voters – and our neighbours – that the Gillard administration is paying less than lip service to the whole notion.  Without funding, there is no commitment. And this is both very apparent and well understood by those we presumably wanted to impress. How embarrassing.

It is a glaring fact not lost on the Australian electorate who, no matter how disengaged they may generally be from the concept of our Asian future, realise that if it is unfunded, it was never really meant to happen anyway and so they have gone back to sleep. Why bother with something that almost certainly will never happen – at least so far as the current government has indicated by its spending priorities.

It is worthy of note that one aspect of Australia’s relationship with Asia has changed, fortunately. Two former strongmen of Asia, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mohammed Mahathir, are not still their countries’ national leaders and, as such, have not highlighted the face-losing deficiencies of this white paper. The current generation of Asian leaders are far more diplomatic and considerate than some of their predecessors. Which is a shame, really as some blunt honesty never really goes astray.

It is concerning that Gillard is about to unleash a newly-designated Minister for Australia in the Asian Century, the hapless Dr Craig Emerson, on our neighbours.  He is supposed to preach the virtues of our new approach in the knowledge that without appropriate budgetary allocations this white paper is just a lot of hot air.

Sadly, we will burn a little more of our rather scarce goodwill with Asian colleagues as they benignly humour our domestic political foibles and wonder if, ever, we will manage to work out just who we are and how we need to acknowledge our geographic and geopolitical realities.

The aspirations set out in the white paper are, mostly, valid but it will almost certainly take someone other than Gillard and her party to bring them to life. By which time we may well be into another century anyway.