Australia Establishes a Framework as a Quintessential Asia-Pacific Ally

  • Photo Courtesy of Australian Government
    Nov 2, 2012

    Australia is setting a course that makes it a quintessential ally for the United States in Asia. Recognizing this fact, building the political foundation for substantially augmenting the alliance and working more closely with Australia across the Asia Pacific are important steps for the United States.

    On October 28, Julia Gillard, Australia’s prime minister, helped make the case that Australia is indispensable as a U.S. partner in Asia when she unveiled a white paper laying out plans for a paradigm shift in how her country would perceive, approach, and engage Asia in the twenty-first century.

    Australia in the Asian Century” is a comprehensive and detailed blueprint for the country’s pivot to Asia. Australia recognizes what the United States has not yet come to terms with—that real, long-term, and effective engagement in Asia means nothing less than a cultural shift toward a commitment to being part of Asia. This includes learning Asian languages and creating educational, commercial, and bureaucratic career tracks that drive talent, thought, and innovation toward integrating the country with Asia.

    The United States’ “pivot” to Asia is important and substantive. But it is not yet comprehensive in scope. It does not encompass, for instance, a wide-ranging trade and development policy; it does not leverage education and private-sector partnerships; and it does not address cultural and political change at home. Australia says it is ready to tackle all of these areas in addition to the diplomatic, political, and security engagement undertaken by the Americans.

    Australia has weathered the global recession by selling its natural resources to the rest of the Asia Pacific, including China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia. However, as commodity prices fall, productivity plummets, and the mining boom winds down, it is clear that a shift in strategy is necessary if Australia is to continue to benefit from its relationship with Asia.

    The latest economic jolt has reminded Australia that geography—its position as the proverbial turnbuckle for global trade with Asia—is an asset, not an obstacle. Historically, Australia has seen itself as part of a greater “Anglosphere,” identifying more with its European roots than with its Asian geography. Indeed, up until the 1950s, distant Britain was Australia’s largest trading partner. As its colonial relationships have diminished over the years, the United Kingdom’s role has waned, however, and Australia’s future has increasingly been defined by its proximity to Asia.

    Today, a resurgent Asia provides Australia with vast economic opportunities. It is expected that by 2025 Asia will account for half of the world’s economic output and will boast growing markets for goods as millions of Asians join the middle class. It is clear where Australia’s future lies. Prime Minister Gillard’s white paper is intended to drive Australia’s future definitively toward Asia rather than allow the country to gradually assimilate. The goal is to recognize, define, and seize opportunities through more effective cooperation and integration.

    The white paper’s approach to Asia is comprehensive. It presents a vision of where Australia should be by 2025 and lays out 25 objectives and practical steps to get there. The objectives cover a range of policy areas including education, innovation, human-to-human connectivity, infrastructure, and increased ease of doing business. All of these are aimed squarely at connecting Australia more easily with its northern neighbors.

    All of the goals outlined seek to coordinate change at the local, state, and federal levels. At the local level, Australian communities are to develop a basic knowledge of Asia. A striking example of this is that children are to learn the government-defined “priority Asian languages” of Hindi, Mandarin, Indonesian, and Japanese. On the state level, improvements are to be made to infrastructure, and the Northern Territory’s cities, such as Darwin, are to be upgraded to make them more livable and effective transport hubs for trade flowing between Australia and Asia.

    At the federal level, Australia will set its gaze on Asia through initiatives such as an expansion of its diplomatic corps, including positioning an ambassador to ASEAN in Jakarta (something the United States, Japan, Korea, and China have already done), launching a cultural campaign, and modifying trade and investment regulations to improve the ease of doing business.

    What is most fascinating about the white paper is how it portrays the relationship between domestic and foreign policy. It effectively argues that foreign policy should be an extension of domestic policy—for this Asia-centric foreign policy to be implemented requires a grassroots, domestic effort.

    This effort is what other “turns to Asia” initiatives lack. The Obama administration’s 2011 rebalance toward Asia clearly has overlooked the importance of domestic engagement, which Australia’s white paper has so keenly grasped. Australian policymakers have realized that if Australia is to embrace Asia in the long term, it needs to break from old paradigms and identities and establish a new standard for interacting with the region. Similarly, if the Obama administration’s rebalance is to have staying power, the U.S. government will need to make a concerted effort to move Asia engagement away from solely elite policymakers and coordinate efforts at the state and local level.

    The implications for U.S. policymakers are clear. The United States should strongly support Australia’s detailed plan to integrate with Asia. An Australian ally that is more substantively and comprehensively engaged in Asia is a stronger ally for the United States.

    At the same time, the United States should understand that it too would be a better partner if it broadened and deepened its commitment to Asia by widening the scope of the rebalance and focusing on building a domestic political foundation for doing business with and investing in the security of Asia.

    The United States can learn much from Australia’s white paper. Australia should have the confidence to follow through and implement the plans laid out in its historic document. Australia’s leaders would do a great favor to the United States by more openly and frequently sharing their perspectives on how the United States could be a better partner. That effort should start with a visit by the Australian prime minister to meet the president of the United States early in 2013, armed with some new ideas and good advice.

    (This Commentary originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)

    Ernest Z. Bower is codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Elke Larsen is research assistant with the CSIS Pacific Partners Initiative.

    Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

    © 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.