Nov 082012

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

Australia in the Asian Century’s final chapter looks at how Australia can deepen relationships with its Asian neighbours. The chapter is full of fine ideas which don’t quite match the reality of government policies and spending.

Early in the chapter the white paper proposes increasing the number of Australian diplomats in Asia along with opening a new embassy in Ulan Baator, a Jakarta based ambassador to ASEAN and consulates in Shenyang , Phuket and eastern Indonesia.

Fine words, however Australia’s diplomatic corps has been shrinking for the last twenty years so staffing these facilities will require a withdrawal from other regions. The white paper doesn’t identify which countries Australia’s representation would be cut from and the consequences of that.

More importantly, it doesn’t identify how Foreign Affairs and Trade staff will be skilled up to man these facilities, instead we get another worthy ambition.

National objective 22. Australia will have the necessary capabilities to promote Australian interests and maintain Australia’s influence.

  • Australia’s diplomatic network will have a larger footprint across Asia.

Again, one would surely expect that Australia would already have the necessary capabilities to promote its national interest and maintain influence. Is the white paper suggesting we don’t?

Which leads us to the next national objective;

National objective 23. Australia will have stronger and more comprehensive relationships with countries across the region, especially with key regional nations—China, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea.

If we accept the assumption which underlies the entire paper, that Asia is going to continue to grow both economically and in influence then this will happen regardless of what governments do. It’s a meaningless and silly statement which once again ignores most of Asia and simplifies the dynamics.

The Australia Network

One of the great wastes of the Howard years was the dismembering of Radio Australia which was a cheap and effective way of projecting ‘soft power’ across the region. I personally came across this as a backpacker in China where many manual workers in the hard seat carriages practiced their Australian accented English that they’d learned on Radio Australia’s programs.

This was shut down by one of the spiteful, stupid and poorly thought out decisions that were the hallmark of the Howard government.

Replacing this was a new Australia network that replaced the previous awful overseas television service which had been a niche product on Asian cable TV channels – I had it on my Thai cable subscription when I lived in Bangkok. It was rarely watched.

The Australia Network hasn’t been a great success and that is largely due to the funding – the 2011-21 contract was costed at $221 million in the budget papers.

A break out box in the white paper boasts about the Australia Channel and its “mandate to encourage awareness of Australia, promote cross-cultural communication and build regional partnerships.”

Listed is the funding for some other services – Al Jazeera, $359 million in 2009; CCTV, $280 million in 2009 and NHK World/Radio, $226 million in 2008.

With the Australia Network receiving less than a tenth of this funding, it’s no surprise the station looks amateurish and irrelevant. Once again we see the difference between government words and government deeds.

Which brings us to the final two national objectives;

National objective 24. Australia will have deeper and broader people to people links with Asian nations, across the entire community.

National objective 25. Australia will have stronger, deeper and broader cultural links with Asian nations.

Again these are more motherhood statements and barely worth considering. The section itself skates over some of Australia’s most important assets – the cultural diversity and immigrant communities.

That the final chapter spends just a few pages on this aspect probably sums up the entire project – simple, full of motherhood statements and missing the critical strengths and threats to Australia’s, and Asia’s growth.

Overall the paper is a disappointment that tells us little we didn’t already know while stating some big ambitions which successive governments have shown they aren’t capable of delivering.

The message for those building Australia’s 21st Century links with Asia is not to wait for government but to get on and do it.

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