Australia in the Asian Century: regional security and foreign policy dimensions

On 28 October, the Prime Minister released the Government’s ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ White Paper.  The Parliamentary Library has released several publications examining different aspects of the White Paper and the reactions to it: 
This piece discusses the regional security and foreign policy dimensions of the White Paper (chapters eight and nine).

Regional security
Whilst acknowledging serious challenges, the White Paper adopts a largely optimistic view of the region’s geo-political future.  It is a future in which a continued US presence, engagement with a rising China, the benefits of trade and investment, and evolving regional multilateral institutions underwrite stability and prosperity.  The White Paper states that Australia will continue to pursue cooperative arrangements among the major powers, strengthen key bilateral relationships, and support multilateral institutions like the United Nations, the G-20, and the East Asia Summit as the foundations of a rules-based regional security order (pp.222—239).
This optimism is appropriate for a policy blueprint that is attempting to motivate government, business, education and community sectors to embrace further domestic reforms and strengthen their understanding of and links with Asia.  It does, however, mean that the downside risks are underplayed. In the words of one security analyst, the White Paper is ‘a massive one-way bet on Asia’s strategic context being pretty much the same in the next dozen years as in the last 40 years, one of benign development’.  Another has nominated increased nationalism among the region’s rising middle classes, disaffected youth in India, and a ‘feasibly unpleasant shift’ in Indonesian politics as just a few of the specific strategic risks not canvassed.  Former senior diplomat, Richard Woolcott, argues the document fails to unambiguously rule out Australian participation in a potentially destabilising strategy of ‘containment’ toward China, a view rejected by the Government.
In a similar vein, the Opposition contends the document does not address the ‘critical issues’, although it has not defined precisely what it believes these to be.  We can only assume that some of the regional security risks will be discussed more fully in the forthcoming 2013 Defence White Paper.   As with Australia’s diplomatic network, the issue of funding remains at the centre of contemporary defence policy debates.
Diplomatic engagement
The White Paper commits Australia to increasing its ‘diplomatic footprint’ in Asia through the establishment of several new posts, including a full embassy in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), and new consulates in Shenyang (China), Phuket (Thailand) and eastern Indonesia, ‘when circumstances allow’ (p.254).  It also confirms our ‘diplomatic deficit’—Australia is now eclipsed by countries like the Republic of Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam in terms of our representation across Asia (p.255).
Discussion of this issue is likely to intensify following the release, a day after the White Paper, of a Parliamentary Committee inquiry’s findingthat our diplomatic network is suffering from ‘serious deficiencies’.  The White Paper also comes in the wake of claims that Australia will need significant additional resources to service its upcoming term on the UN Security Council and the release of documents by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) that state that its staffing presence overseas has fallen by 13.7 per cent since 1996.
Notably, the White Paper omits a ‘medium priority’ Asia post, Chongqing (China), nominated by DFAT in its May 2012 submission to the aforementioned Parliamentary inquiry in favour of the proposed Shenyang post.
The Government has also announced that it will appoint a full time, resident Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta (p.257).  Since 2008, this role has been performed on a part-time basis by a Canberra-based official.  According to the Foreign Minister, there is ‘no regional grouping more relevant to our security, our prosperity’. This change will place Australia’s representation to ASEAN on par with that of the US, China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea.
Aid and development
The paper devotes relatively little attention to the role of Australia’s aid in strengthening our regional engagement.  This is surprising given that, despite impressive economic growth, two-thirds of the world’s poor still live in our region, this issue was a source of some interesting debates during the White Paper’s preparation, and the Government plans to spend around $2.7 billion annually on aid to East, South and West Asia by 2015—16, including almost $1 billion annually to Indonesia.
The White Paper notes the positive development outcomes that have accompanied the region’s economic rise (pp.32–36).  It also states, however, that growing disparities in incomes and living standards threaten social stability and long-term growth (p.60). Importantly, it recognises the development constraints associated with the ‘middle-income trap’— the fact that, since 1960, only 13 of 101 countries classified as middle–income have gone on to reach high-income status (p.56).  Eight of the ten ASEAN economies are still classified as either middle or low income.
The majority of Asia’s poor now live in large middle-income countries, alongside ‘an increasingly mobile and wealthy middle class’ (p.46).  Poverty reduction in these societies is not necessarily linear—the Asian Development Bank estimatesthat a 30 per cent increase in international food prices could push an additional 64 million Asians back into poverty.  The White Paper acknowledges that escaping the middle-income trap and achieving further poverty reduction will depend on major institutional reforms, reforms that both developed and developing countries have often found very difficult.
To help address Asia’s development challenges, the White Paper identifies building resilient water, food and energy markets as priorities for future aid (pp.239–249).  In order to build human resource capacity, it also commits 12 000 places for Asian university students to study in Australia over the next five years through the ‘Australia Awards’ scheme (p.251).  The Government has subsequently confirmedthat these are not new places but reflect previous budget decisions.  A new ‘Australia Awards Office’ will be established to strengthen alumni networks among Asian leaders educated in Australia (p.266).  Whilst this is an important goal, if this Office takes the form of a new stand­­-alone agency it could add more complexity to a program that is already spread across at least three agencies (DFAT, AusAID, and the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education) and about which the Australian National Audit Office has previously flagged concernsabout coordination.

Country strategies
Finally, the White Paper commits the Government to developing ‘comprehensive’ strategies to guide engagement with key countries.  China, India, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea will be the ‘initial priorities’ for these strategies which will set out the ‘objectives and priorities for [these] relationships across the whole community’. They will be tabled in Parliament and ‘regularly evaluated and updated’ (p.257).
If these country strategies are to be more than just a shopping list of aspirations and activities they will need to involve choices about priorities.  Getting consensus around these could prove difficult, as the Government has found in relation to efforts over the last several years to finalise country strategies in the area of development assistance.  For example, portions of the Australian community may view public advocacy for improved civil and political rights in Tibet as a potentially important part of our overall engagement with China, but this is not likely to be an objective shared by authorities in Beijing, or one that is easy to ‘evaluate’ in any meaningful sense of the term.
Managing community expectations around what these strategies can and cannot achieve will be just one of the future challenges facing the Government as it moves to implement this ambitious new blueprint.



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