Still, for anyone who cares about Australia’s links with its Indo-Pacific neighborhood, the new document is a worthy vision.
The main areas of disappointment and skepticism are about money, timing and the paper’s lopsided assessments of strategic risk.
The white paper rightly says that adapting Australia to the Asian century – economically, strategically and at the level of society – will be the work of a generation. The problem, though, is that the clock has been ticking for years.
The Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments – and their oppositions – all share blame for the country’s too-often delayed, uncoordinated and underfunded responses to a changing Asia, even while each can claim credit for elements of the new paper’s strategy.
The hard work lies ahead. That is something Australians might yet take in their stride, except that girding a nation for a radically changed world will not be cheap.
And, like Kevin Rudd’s 2009 Defense White Paper – with ambitious force structure proposals that seem to be fast disappearing down a political memory hole – Canberra’s Asian century white paper is bold on vision and shy on costs.
There is little acknowledgement that Australia simply will not be able to hold its own in a fast-changing Asia without greater investment in less fashionable instruments of policy like its diplomatic network and defense force. And observers of the Australian defense debate are well aware that the nation’s military faces currently relative decline in its budget, to the lowest proportion of GDP since the 1930s, around 1.6 percent.
Indeed, the Asian century white paper is at its weakest when coming to terms with the nation’s deeply uncertain strategic environment.
Admittedly there is some sound strategic analysis, politely worded so as to avoid needless offense, about how Asia’s future may end up much less rosy than the white paper’s economically-driven optimism would suggest.
The possibilities of confrontation or war between China and the United States, China and its neighbors or India and Pakistan are considered real. But because we all have so much to lose, and governments are presumably rational, a strategic breakdown is deemed unlikely. And the role of deterrence in maintaining stability is not really stated.
To be sure, there are some sensible security recommendations. An emphasis is placed on building diplomatic architecture like the East Asia Summit. Prudently, the paper recommends Australia do more to build the infrastructure of communications and cooperation among the region’s defense forces to stop an incident somewhere like the South China Sea from getting out of hand. The Australian navy can play a useful role here, given its traditions of defense diplomacy with all the region’s powers.
But the paper does little to countenance the prospect that the very economic virtue of the Asian century – the rising wealth, influence and expectations of the massive middle classes in China and India – could prove its strategic undoing. The role of overconfident middle-class nationalism in driving tensions among Asia’s strong states gets scant play.
There is also little hint at plausible strategic shocks from the Chinese polity’s one-party brittleness, India’s potential failure to meet the needs of its 600 million citizens under the age of 25 or a feasibly unpleasant shift in Indonesian politics.
In the end, Australia would be well-advised to do almost all the things the white paper calls for and more – and the more is to properly resource its diplomats and defense force. These steps make sense regardless of whether the Asian century turns out for better or worse. It is odd that Canberra’s new Asia plan was not more forthright in saying so.
Whatever else, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has set some very high benchmarks by which her own and subsequent Australian governments will be measured in coming to terms with a changing Asia. Now the real test begins.
Rory Medcalf is director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute, Sydney, and a Fellow at the Australia-India Institute.