How can Chris Bowen ensure that engagement with Asia will be different this time? By convincing all Australians it’s important and urgent, and by getting Bill Shorten to endorse it convincingly.
At the next election some people may punish Malcolm Turnbull for talking up innovation, climate concerns, energy efficiency, fast internet connections, jobs and growth, and then producing none of it. Others may reward him for being on the way to closing down the Nauru and Manus camps without the boat people trade resuming, or for fighting IS. Some may appreciate his support of marriage equality and an eventual Republic. But Asia has not been front of mind for him, any more than it was for Abbott or Howard. Of course: we are 17 years into the Asian Century, but these are the Australian conservatives, who seem to want nothing fundamental to change apart from the values of people unlike them.
Australian moderates are unlikely to punish Turnbull for merely going through the Asia motions. One exponent is Gareth Evans. In Incorrigible Optimist, his forthcoming autobiography, he makes two (and of course, many other) important points. First, he recalls how quickly his ministerial colleagues in the Whitlam government realised that they ‘hated in government what they had agreed on in opposition,’ something that remains true of both sides of politics. Next, he admits that he had no Asian or any other language. As Foreign Minister he argued that there was no problem because everyone would soon speak English, which probably reflects the Coalition’s opinion as well. But in his book he realises that we need ‘more Asia.’ In an interview in June, Evans took a new stand, saying that the US under Trump has ‘finally abdicated its global leadership role’ (P&I, 6/20/2017 Gareth Evans). No American leadership? What does that mean for Australia?
Out comes Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen with the answer: FutureAsia. But he spoke about it to the Asia Society on the eve of the grand finals and long weekend at the end of September, when most Australians were paying so little attention that Defence was able to bury its civilian Iraqi body-count. Unfortunately the same happened to Bowen’s speech. Our incredible and shrinking mainstream media long ago dropped ‘Asia-enmeshment’. Nonetheless Bowen renewed the case for engagement with Asia which any Australian old enough to vote would remember from the Hawke and Keating years. It was a revival of the Australia in the Asian Century white paper which Ken Henry drafted and Julia Gillard’s government failed to fund. He restated its principles, calling for a ‘step change’ not only in Australia’s economic relations with Asian countries, but a fundamental ‘whole of nation’ effort to broaden and deepen our engagement with the region.
Bowen added some updates to the 2012 White Paper. He would, as Treasurer, report annually to Parliament on the implementation of FutureAsia, including its progress in building Asia-relevant capabilities and regional collaboration. He deplored the fact that nothing has been done for four years to reverse the decline in Asian language teaching and learning in Australia, and said this should change. He described Asian business literacy in Australia as lamentable. A Labor government would bring an open mind to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Bowen said. He called for better use to be made of the talents of Australia’s 4 million-strong Asian diaspora, particularly Chinese, Indian and Japanese Australians. (He didn’t mention Koreans). He proposed setting up an ASEAN Studies Centre, and restoring funding to the Asia Education Foundation. He promised to emulate the US International Diaspora Engagement Alliance. He and several of his Labor colleagues, he said, are studying Mandarin or Bahasa Indonesia; Penny Wong speaks Bahasa Melayu.
We have heard versions of this, expanding in scope every time Labor has been in power, since 1972. Then the Coalition takes over and dumps it. So Australia has had peaks and troughs of Asia-enthusiasm for decades. Julie Bishop has taken Australia in the Asian Century off the DFAT website. How can Bowen ensure that this time it will be different? By setting an example, as he and some of his colleagues are doing; by funding his initiatives, which he should be able to do; and by convincing all Australians it’s important and urgent, particularly by getting Bill Shorten to endorse FutureAsia convincingly. By doing it, rather than talking about it, particularly to our regional neighbours, who also have heard it all before.
But in the corner of the Asia Society forum where Bowen spoke sat the unmentionable gorilla of the US alliance. Unless ALP policy changes at its next national conference, Australia will continue to rely on the assumption that the US will defend us, in return for our contributions to US wars, and for hosting US military bases. The priorities listed in FutureAsia would fall in a heap, just like their predecessors, if we became involved in a war against China or North Korea. Bowen is presumably genuine about wanting a ‘step-change’ towards Asia, but he appears not to have worked through the implications with Shorten or the shadow defence spokesman, Richard Marles. Australians cannot be expected to revive their Asia-enthusiasm while the independence of our foreign and defence policy remains in doubt.
Dr Alison Broinowski FAIIA, a former Australian diplomat, is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform and Vice-President of Honest History.