The document states many sensible aspirations to reshape the nation, including through giving every Australian child the chance to learn Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian or Hindi, with Korean, Vietnamese and Thai as other important options.
The bad news is that there is little evidence so far of a serious or sustained government commitment to funding these goals. Indeed, in recent years some of Australia’s chief instruments of international engagement – notably its diplomatic network and defense force – have found their budgets in relative decline.
Moreover, parts of the white paper have unfortunately been crafted in such a way as to diminish the prospects of active bipartisan endorsement – even though this should be an essential ingredient to any enduring national strategy.
For instance, the text identifies Australia’s successful Asian engagement overwhelmingly with many of the values and domestic policies of the Labor party (currently holding power despite its lack of an outright parliamentary majority). The conservative Opposition – which has a strong chance of winning the election due next year — has broadly welcomed the paper but questioned its lack of funding, and suggested it is largely a repackaging of sensible ideas that have been around for some time.
No doubt a document like this is better late than never. But Australia could have done with this kind of blueprint four or five years ago, when there was a solid budget surplus to help pay for the national transformation that will be necessary.
So in a sense the responsibility for the delayed and under-funded nature of this white paper can be laid at the door of the previous governments, of the conservatives under John Howard (1996-2007) and Labor under Kevin Rudd (2007-2010). The fact is, Australian politics in recent years has been plagued by short-term thinking, bitter partisanship, rhetoric without follow-through, personal power-plays and policy paralysis. It will be a major test for the Gillard Government to transcend those problems in its execution of this grand Asia plan.
The other chief problem with the white paper is about realism and balance. The document says much about how to seize the economic opportunities of Asia. But it ventures less about the perilous flipside — how to manage what could become great strategic uncertainty and turbulence.
Indeed, at times its strategic assessments pull their punches beyond the requirements of diplomacy. For instance, its description of tensions in the South China Sea implies that these are merely a continuation of what has gone before, rather than a worsening situation which could yet become a perfect storm of competing nationalisms, resource insecurities and U.S.-China rivalry.