PERTH – A few days back, an eminent colleague who teaches and researches at an Australian institution of higher education commented at the moment he learned that I would would be visiting the country, “Ask the Aussies why they will not fund research grants on Latin America.”
I found his words very provocative and potentially revealing on a host of aspects related to contemporary Australia-Latin America relations, and decided to dig a bit deeper. According to my inside source, a limited number of research projects on Latin America were being funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) over the last decade – hardly four or five – under the interrogation “Why should we care about Latin America?” Surprising as it may sound, every submission on Latin American topics would be rejected not on grounds of purely academic merit, but presumably in consonance with the federal government’s strategic assessment.
After having this stimulating conversation, I found myself in a particularly favorable position as, within a few days, I would attend at the University of Western Australia, in Perth, a lecture by Professor Stephen Smith, Australia’s former minister of foreign affairs (2007-2010), trade (2010), and defence (2010-2013), on Canberra’s grand strategy for the world. Given his thick political biography and scholarly background, I could hardly think of someone as well-equipped as him to provide me with the answers I was in pursuit of.
Smith did deliver on May 25, an elegant outline of Australia’s interests today, covering fields as diverse as trade, technology, and geopolitics. Recalling an oft-cited report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers on the state of the world economy in 2050, he mentioned that China, the U.S., India, and Indonesia were bound to become the leading players, and Australia had to be prepared to benefit the most from its well-endowed geography, for being an Indo-Pacific nation could help establishing preferential ties with these partners. Still pointing toward the future, Smith did not forget to cite the promising situation of the whole African continent – a universe of 1.2 million people whose prospects for economic growth are undeniable.
There was absolutely nothing wrong with Smith’s talk. Guided by my mental predispositions, though, I was expecting from him a word on Latin America. A single reference would suffice. After all, Smith was the one in charge of relatively recent Australian foreign policy. But this reference never appeared. Then, when the floor was open for questions from the audience, I thought I should give Smith a final chance to come to terms with his omission: “Prof Smith, you have truthfully claimed that China, U.S., India and Indonesia will be the four leading economies in the world by 2050. All right. You have just forgotten to bring up that Brazil should be number five, and Mexico number seven. Would there be any reason to leave Latin America out of your narrative?”
His response came in the form of a metaphor: “What you see depends on where you are sitting.” To put it in other words, Smith relied on geographical factors to contend that Latin America would not be a natural priority for 21st-century Australia. In addition, he contradicted the bulk of his own argument by affirming that these exercises of economic forecasting often fail – as it happened with Argentina, a country seen by many in the early 1990s as the Latin American power-to-be. The same fate could befall Brazil or Mexico in the near future – he concluded. So, who knows?
Feeling unconvinced and frustrated after that exchange of ideas, but still in search of crucial evidence, I happened to read the newspaper on the following day and find an extensive coverage of Australia’s defence thought and recent military operations. This special report circulated by The Australian in a weekend edition (May 26-28, 2018) brought an interview with the current defence minister, Senator Marise Payne, on a broad range of issues. It was time, I guessed, to confront her ideas with the ones borne by her predecessor.
Payne was adamant on stating the very special place enjoyed by Southeast Asia as regards Australia’s anti-terrorism policy. Countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Brunei were singled out as key contributors for the maintenance of peace and security in the region. India, Britain, Germany, France and the U.S. also deserved nominal reference, as the topic of the Shangri-la Dialogue – an important forum on international security to be held in Singapore this week – popped up in the conversation. East Asia – Japan as a member of the Quad, the Korean Peninsula, China – and Russia also merited due reflection. Even the small islands in the Pacific (Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea) were given consideration.
Although Payne had affirmed that Australia’s Pacific neighbors would be top priority, guess who was missing in her account? Again, Latin American countries were overlooked. Even those whose engagement with trans-Pacific relations are beyond a shadow of a doubt – and I cite Peru, Chile, Colombia and Mexico, all members of the Pacific Alliance. The “Atlantis Syndrome” – to make an obvious reference to Jules Verne’s Voyage to the Center of the Earth – is not just in the heads and spoken words of Australian former and incumbent leaders: Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, with a foreword by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Trade Minister Steven Ciobo, barely mentions Latin America (four single textual appearances in the course of 136 pages) as a zone for concern and/or opportunities. Unlike Wellington, I am afraid that Canberra is simply not looking east. How wise may this bet prove?