The Asian century is rich, restless and already 12 years old. And, of all nations, Australia stands to be profoundly affected by this era of rapid change – whether the region resolves into a golden age of prosperity and human development or collapses in strategic turmoil.
So it is extraordinary that it has taken so long for Australia to come up with a comprehensive and publicly-articulated plan for dealing with the opportunities and challenges of finding itself close to the world’s new center of economic and strategic gravity.
The good news is that the Australian Government, under Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard, has at last done that, launching an ambitious policy white paper titled Australia in the Asian Century on October 28th.
To understand this project, where it has come from, and where it may take Australia, first consider what an anomalous nation this is. Australia has distinct strengths, but vulnerabilities as well.
It is the only nation to occupy a whole continent, yet that land, while rich in mineral wealth, is largely arid and can sustain only a small population. It is a developed economy and a huge supplier of resources. Its chief trade and investment relationships are all in Asia, or more precisely the wider Indo-Pacific including the United States.
Australia has a special proximity to Asia. With its unique two-ocean geography, it is well-placed for what is increasingly being recognized as an Indo-Pacific era, in which the Asia that matters globally is not only East Asia but India and its maritime environs as well.
Australia has Western cultural origins and alignments which sometimes continue to hamper its image in Asia. It relies increasingly on Asian immigration, especially now from China and India, to ensure its economy and society keep thriving. Over a quarter of Australians were born overseas, making this country truly a nation of immigrants, much more so proportionately than the United States. Australia increasingly – and proudly – wears an Asian face.
It has vast security interests in its territory and maritime zones, yet only a small population – 23 million – and an advanced but small defense force. It is a U.S. ally yet has close economic and increasingly societal ties with China, its top trading partner.
It has a multicultural society with a stable if lively democratic system. And its federal, democratic and partisan style of politics sometimes struggles to marshal and mobilize national capacities and will to deal with new challenges – an exception being its earlier waves of economic reform in the 1980s and 1990s.
Finally, it is fair to say that many Australians – while well-travelled – have tended to be complacent about the rise of Asia and what it means for their economic and strategic future.
Against this muddled backdrop, the new white paper is, if nothing else, a wake-up call. It correctly urges Australia to get its own house in order as a first step towards flourishing in the Asian era, including through a competitive and diversified economy, education, innovation, social cohesion, infrastructure, environmental management, security and diplomacy.