“Just over two decades ago, the Australian Government commissioned a study of Australia and the Northeast Asian ascendancy” starts the opening of the Australia in the Asian Century report. That sentence describes how this paper is the latest of Australia’s earnest efforts to understand the region.
The opening chapter of the report follows the sensible principle that to plan for the future we have to first understand the present so this section seeks to explain the development of various Asian economies and put those changes into an Australian perspective.
Notable in the narrative is the North East Asian focus, while India gets a brief mention most of the story revolves around the development of China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea. Chart 1.2, “Asia’s economic dividend” gives the game away when all but one ‘Asian’ country listed is East Asian.
Russia, along with most of South and Central Asia – not to mention other Asia countries like Iran, Turkey and the former Soviet Republics – rate no mention all.
The narratives around the countries which are covered is also deficient – for instance the discussion on Japan’s, South Korea’s and Vietnam’s developments totally ignore post-war reconstruction efforts and their relations with the United States.
China does get a more detailed examination rightly noting it was the country’s admission to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 that really set the economy’s export sector moving, however it skates over the massive dislocations and market reforms introduced in the 1980s which laid the foundations for China’s successful bid to join the WTO.
More notably, the analysis overlooks – probably to avoid upsetting PRC diplomats and making life difficult in Canberra – the role of Taiwanese investment in China and Taiwan’s development itself.
In a similar vein the scant discussion of India misses the role of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) in the country’s economic development along with the concentration of power in the various industrial conglomerates like the Tata Group.
Again, the same omission is made when discussing the South Korean Chaebols and Japanese Keiretsu. Given the investments made in Australia by all of these industrial conglomerates it’s curious they barely rate a mention in discussing Asia’s industrialisation process.
The discussion on innovation in Chapter 1.3 is useful however it lacks substance in identifying exactly which sectors various Asian economies are specialising in and which industries are in decline as various countries move up the value chain.
Singapore’s success in becoming East Asia’s hub for banking and corporate regional headquarters is a notable omission and again one has a suspicion this is because of ongoing Australian governments’ doomed ambitions to establish Sydney as a regional financial and business centre.
Probably the most glaring omission in Chapter One though is the role of the United States. In tracking the rise of the Indian service sector or Chinese, Japanese and South Korean manufacturing the trade policies of the US cannot be ignored. And yet they largely are.
That failure to acknowledge the US role means report overlooks the Clinton and Bush I Administrations’ forced opening East Asia’s largely closed economies which radically changed South Korea, Taiwan and Japan in the late 1980s and early 90s. Not to mention the critical role the US had during that period in allowing China and Vietnam to join the global trade networks.
Chapter One of Australia in the Asian Century is an unsatisfactory introduction to the complexities of the Asian economies and one suspects is because of the compromises made to assuage the egos and groupthink of Canberra’s mandarins and politicians.
Most importantly, it fails to put the last thirty years’ developments in Asia into an Australian context or perspective. In this respect, it’s a fitting start to a largely inadequate report.