Learning to listen to Asia
15 Oct 2018|

The 2017 foreign policy white paper makes much of Australia’s values. Malcolm Turnbull’s introduction to the white paper says that ‘Australia’s values are enduring’. Turnbull has now moved on, but the focus on Australia’s values remains a core theme of official statements about Australian foreign policy. That’s hardly surprising; all nations have principles that guide their foreign policies.

But the emphasis on values runs into two problems in our relations with our Asian neighbours. First, quite a few Australian values jar markedly with Asian ones. Second, it often isn’t clear that we’re even aware of this clash. In short, we don’t seem to be good at listening to the voices in our region.

Just what are the values that we point to? The white paper lists support for such things as democracy, freedom, equality, the rule of law, and mutual respect. In the economic arena, Australian statements frequently mention such things as the need for stronger markets, free trade, the private sector and limited government.

But it’s easier to espouse principles than to apply them. Most countries in the world say (frequently) that they subscribe to ideals such as freedom, democracy and free trade. However, these statements often mean little. And there’s no shortage of examples in recent years of Australia’s actions in Asia not living up to Australian rhetoric.

Australia has struggled to define a coherent set of principles to guide its relations with Asia for over a century. One of Australia’s leading diplomats, Rawdon Dalrymple, wrote about a ‘sense of unease’ about Asia at the core of Australia’s nationhood in his book Continental drift. The subtitle of the book was ‘Australia’s search for a regional identity’.

And the situation is complicated by the awkward fact that there are around 4 billion of them and only 25 million of us. Sticking close to our protectors—first, the United Kingdom, and more recently, the United States—has brought comfort but hasn’t really solved the problem. After all, they may not be reliable. President Donald Trump, for example, might not respond if we call. And Asia is changing rapidly.

Reform in our relations with Asia requires at least two major changes.

First, we need to pay more attention to our neighbours. The problem with focusing on promoting our values is that while we’re talking, we’re not listening. Indeed, disagreements over values are not really the issue. There are key differences between Australia and our regional neighbours—not over values but, rather, over priorities.

Energy is a case in point. In Australia, much discussion about energy policy focuses on the goal of shifting towards cleaner energy. But in developing Asia, there’s a second priority as well: the urgent need to get much more electricity.

Average annual electricity consumption in Australia is around 10,000 kilowatt hours per person. In India, Indonesia and the Philippines, the figure is below 1,000. So, as our Asian neighbours see it, top priority needs to be given to the rapid expansion of electricity supplies. And it seems inevitable that much of this expansion will be in coal-fired power plants.

For Australia to have an effective conversation with our regional neighbours about global energy issues, we need to recognise their priorities as well as talk about our own.

Second, we need to find ways of being more open to the economies and markets of the region. Openness is a key factor for any country in promoting economic success.

Australia’s policies of promoting open trade with Asia and the world have brought enormous economic gain to Australians. But an emphasis on openness needs to go well beyond trade—it needs to extend to other markets such as capital and labour markets, and to all sorts of other flows, such as exchanges of ideas and technology.

To share in the huge economic boom now gathering strength in Asia, we will need to continue making reforms to promote openness. The deregulation of the education sector with the opening to overseas students in the mid-1980s, for example, transformed Australian universities from inward-looking institutions servicing a protected local market to a rapidly expanding export-oriented sector. Similar forms of deregulation are needed across other parts of Australia’s service sector.

And, difficult though it is, we need to consider carefully the economic implications of an expanded focus on security issues in our dealings with Asia. Increased security might provide increased protection—but it is also protectionist. It’s not possible to build walls and to open markets at the same time. We need to find ways of opening our doors to Asia, not closing them.