Nov 072012
The Merlion is the symbol of the Asian city state of Singapore

This post is one of the series of articles on the Australia in the Asian Century report.

The eighth chapter of Australia in the Asian Century looks at the security picture of the region, this is one of the bigger chapters and like some of the others it’s as notable for what it leaves out as for what it says.

National objective 20. Australian policies will contribute to Asia’s development as a region of sustainable security in which habits of cooperation are the norm.

That’s nice, worthy and has been undoubtedly true for most previous Australian governments. Except of course when Australian Prime Ministers join the prevailing colonial power in wars like Iraq, Afghanistan, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam or kicking around the German territories in World War I.

Chapter Eight partly dives into territory already covered in Chapter Three, this time though the analysis does discuss the United States’ role in more detail and makes the observation that US military spending dwarfs that of any other Asian nation – interestingly this is one of the few times Russia gets a mention in the entire report.

Encouragingly, the paper doesn’t confine the concept of ‘security’ just to military matters and takes a broader view of issues such as guaranteeing access to resources, food and water. There is some discussion of climate change and on regional responses to natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes.

One notable omission is that of refugees. Given that most of the asylum seekers arriving by boat are Asian – currently coming from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka – and almost all pass through other Asian countries, it would be expected this issue would get some exploration. Sadly it doesn’t and once again skirting over an important issue detracts from the paper’s substance.

As befits Australia’s most important relationships in Asia, there is a lot of discussion of the three way relationship between China, the United States and Australia with a detailed breakout box in section 8.4.

The discussion on Australia’s relations between China and the US makes an interesting statement;

In managing the intersections of Australia’s ties with the United States and China, we will need a clear sense of our national interests, a strong voice in both relationships and effective diplomacy.

Undoubtedly this statement is true, however successive Australian governments have conflated the interests of the United States with being the same as Australia’s. In recent times Australian leaders have followed the US lead even when it has been clear American policy conflicts with Australia’s Chinese relations.

Moving away from a reflex support of the United States is going to be one of the biggest challenges for Australian governments in the Asian Century and one hopes the process is as gradual and incident free as the white paper hopes.

National objective 21.The region will be more sustainable and human security will be strengthened with the development of resilient markets for basic needs such as energy, food and water.

National objective 21 is an interesting statement in itself – “resilient markets for basic needs such as energy, food and water” smacks of the 1980s privatisation and corporatism that has left Australia with duopoly industries and an excessive financialisation of those markets for basic needs.

It may well turn out to be the case that Asian countries choose not to follow that path, particularly those like the Philippines and Indonesia who have experienced the effects of crony capitalism in recent history.

Chapter 8 of Australia in the Asian Century finishes with a detailed look at the regional efforts aimed at building trust and co-operation on trans-national issues.  Much is made of various international groups such as the G20 and the UN.

An interesting case study is that of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty with an examination of Japan’s and Australia’s work in that field. Sadly this is another area that’s let down by the actions of current and previous Australian governments in selling uranium to India.

The nuclear weapons stand off between India, Pakistan and China is another ‘elephant in the room’ issue that doesn’t really get the coverage it should in such a report.

Chapter 8 of Australia in the Asian Century is a very optimistic section of the report however it does hint at the path Australia could follow to being a credible, medium sized economy and influencer in the region. However one has to consider the actions of Australian leaders when asking if the nation is really interested in taking that path.

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