The Asian Century White Paper: one plan to rule them all
29 Oct 2012|

The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper is an ambitious document, and it’s one Strategist contributors will analyse from different perspectives over the next few days. Broadly speaking, there are some important and positive aspects to the statement: it is the most comprehensive expression of Australia’s foreign policy objectives in over a decade; it focusses on a region of enormous importance to us; and it allows for a very modest growth in our diplomatic engagement with the region. But the downsides to the report are equally apparent: it is largely unfunded; the planning complexity rivals the Barry Jones ‘noodle nation’ education plan that was sunk by its own cleverness; and (as I have argued here) the narrow focus on Asia’s emerging powers is a necessary but insufficient start point for Australian strategic policy.

The chapter on ‘Building Sustainable Security in the Region’ is the only point in the White Paper that discusses the consequence of potential risks to Asian stability and growth. There is a welcome emphasis on the importance of continuing US military engagement in the region and on the essentiality of the US policy of extended deterrence to its allies. The chapter points to the growing range of defence capabilities in Asia. In China’s case, it says that this growth is ‘natural and legitimate’ and it emphasises the importance of building trust as a means to prevent potential conflict. We’ll have to wait for the 2013 Defence White Paper to see the finer detail.

The most curious inclusion in the security chapter is a reference to ballistic missile defence:

Closer engagement among regional nations on missile defence will be necessary. We will work with the United States and regional partners to develop a constructive regional approach to dealing with the missile threat posed by rogue states, and the proliferation of enabling technologies in our region.

Well done to that drafter! This passage innocently nestles in some paragraphs on arms control issues and points to an obvious and necessary area of growth in US alliance cooperation. That aside, there is almost nothing new in the security section of the White Paper. It does little to dull the positive glow about presumed Asian growth and stability out to 2025.

One likely risk to the White Paper’s objectives is its enormous complexity. The plan sets out no less than 25 national objectives for 2025 with multiple ‘policy pathways’ to achieve these goals. Targets are set to put Australia’s per capita GDP in the world’s top ten by 2025; our schools in the world’s top five; a national goal to be in the top ten innovating countries, and so on. In reality, these are tectonic shifts. Detailed implementation plans cascade down from the national objectives: a National Research Investment Plan, a systemic national framework for infrastructure; a National Productivity Compact; a National Plan for School Improvement; an Asian Century Business Engagement Plan to name only a few. Comprehensive plans for our bilateral relationships with China, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea (to start with) are to be developed, ‘tabled in Parliament and regularly evaluated and updated.’

In short, the White Paper is a central planners’ dream. Senior officials are sure to be developing nervous tics as they contemplate the volume of Cabinet Submissions required to service the plan. Beyond the ambition lies the reality of implementation. There is an obvious need here for some tough-minded assessment of the costs and benefits of these proposals. For instance, learning languages is obviously a good thing but we’ll need to take a hard look at the implications of teaching the White paper’s four identified languages—Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese—to hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren. There’s still a lack of clarity as to which imperatives led to some languages being prioritised over others. With incredible growth in both the Philippines (named one of the new ‘tiger economies’) and Vietnam, why Japanese over Tagalog or Vietnamese? And what subjects will be taken off the curriculum to accommodate the plan?

There is still a sense of unease that, under this plan, so much of Australia’s international focus is narrowed to a small number of emerging Asian powers. In important ways this amounts to a bet on a particular positive scenario continuing to unfold. Of course, these countries are vital to our interests but surely not at the exclusion of the rest of the world. The White Paper recognises the central security role of the United States but this critical relationship is dealt with only in passing. Europe is casually dismissed, the South Pacific is ignored, Africa remains the Dark Continent and bizarrely the White Paper claims that Australia should be a ‘connecting rod’ between Latin America and Asia, whatever that means. Meanwhile, all of Asia’s major powers are pursuing strategies of global engagement. The Asian Century White Paper should be seen as a welcome starting point to discuss Australia’s place in the world, but from here we need to broaden our focus, not narrow it.

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.