DUNCAN GRAHAM The Washington watcher on UWA’s cast-iron balcony

Mar 4, 2020

Why is the Perth-based USAsia Centre backed by Australian taxpayers? If this foreign influencer was run by the Chinese or Russians it would be forensically examined. As a US show it slips past scrutineers.

USAsia appeared at the University of Western Australia in 2012, no major gap identified, no pressing need articulated by outsiders. Not a study centre but another think tank we didn’t know we needed. It seemed to have come out of the blue, but also present were red and white stripes.

It was opened by Hillary Clinton when Secretary of State. It’s been led since by an American, Korean expert Lawrence Gordon Flake.

The founders include UWA, Sydney University’s US Studies Centre and the American Australian Association.

The AAA was set up in 1948 by Sir Keith Murdoch in New York where it’s headquartered.

USAsia is listed as a foreign influencer with the Attorney General’s Department. It’s also a registered charity and an Australian public company.

The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS)began in 2018 ‘to provide the public with visibility of the nature, level and extent of foreign influence on Australia’s government and politics.’ There are 213 registrants.

USAsia dubs itself ‘Australia’s leading think-tank for the strengthening of relationships between Australia, the Indo-Pacific and the United States.’ This role is also the responsibility of the Australian government.

Apart from helping the economy by giving jobs to 14 researchers, publicists, administrators and designers (the website is impressive), there’s no clear reason why USAsia is necessary.

More than half its $3 million annual budget (2019) comes from the Federal and State governments lightly aided by three corporates: The Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, the Japanese oil company Inpex, and Australian conglomerate Wesfarmers.

Other donors include the US State Department and the Japanese Consulate-General in Perth. These are the ‘activities’ listed on the FITS register.

Together the corporates toss in only seven per cent, suggesting they’re less enthusiastic about the Centre than politicians. About 30 per cent comes from ‘program specific grants’.

USAsia’s ten-member board includes two former Labor politicians – Kim Beazley, Deputy PM 1995-96, Opposition Leader 1996-01 and 2005-06, and Ambassador to the US 2010-16. He’s now the WA Governor.

The second is Stephen Smith, Minister for Foreign Affairs 2007-10, and Defence 2010-13. He’s now Professor of Public International Law at UWA. The other members are heavyweights from business and academia.

USAsia says it has run 100 conferences in the past six years including some overseas and featured foreign experts. Last year it hosted 80 across six countries ‘engaging with a collective audience of over 4,100.’

Many functions sound like echo chambers where well-read audiences hear what they already know. Although some are open, others are ‘invite only’ or ‘private roundtables’ so we don’t know what information and opinions are flashed back to State’s Harry S Truman Building for forming US foreign policy.

If a similar centre was run by an authoritarian regime – China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia loom into view – there’d be questions in Parliament about outside interference. But the US is a democracy and our great and powerful friend, so misses out.

Though not for want of trying. These questions were sent to Flake and staff but never answered, denting the claim to transparency:

Where did the initiative for the USAsia Centre start? I’ve read about the Centre’s formation, but interested in the genesis.

Is the Centre duplicating work normally done by professional diplomats at the US Consulate-General in Perth and Embassy in Canberra, watching the region and reporting back to Washington?

Does USAsia have counterparts elsewhere in the world?

Is the Centre involved in advocacy, apart from ‘strengthening relationships and strategic thinking between Australia, the Indo-Pacific and the USA’ – and how are these aims measured?

Some of the Centre’s activities, like initiating private discussions with ambassadors, could be seen as an NGO usurping the proper role of government departments, particularly the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Your comment?

When will the Federal and WA governments’ support end? Is there a guarantee of continuity?

A generalised rationale for the Centre can be found in this 2014 video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mcmKdRDCXY

The personable Flake, 53, went to the Mormon’s Brigham Young University where he specialized in Korean Studies. He doesn’t have a PhD. He styles himself ‘professor’ and likes to call colleagues ‘distinguished fellows’.

He was previously executive director of the Washington-based Mansfield Foundation which seeks to ‘promote understanding and cooperation among the nations and peoples of Asia and the US’. It has also published three of his books.

He occasionally gets called to comment on Korean issues but hasn’t become the media’s go-to for boundary-breaking views. Talking sense on Asia is tough in Perth, not helped by having a tabloid local press more interested in AFL drunks in Kuta than anti-Muslim laws in India.

However USAsia is getting traction elsewhere, becoming the WA Government’s preferred guide to the region. Departments are said to be funding the Centre’s advice, by-passing Asian business councils with decades of on-ground experience and key contacts on speed-dial. According to one source it’s “an issue that simmers quietly beneath the surface”.

Strategically any Asian ‘think tank’ would be better based in Jakarta, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi or Singapore where staff would get a direct daily feel for local politics, sniff the smoke and hear the grumbles. Then their reports would have grunt.

However postings where the US isn’t a favoured guest don’t attract staff wanting Western lifestyles and salaries. Keyboarding behind blast-proof walls and being continuously monitored is only tolerable if the promised next stop is Geneva or Helsinki.

The justification for locating in comfy Perth is that it’s closer to the target area than Canberra. This excuse had little validity even before faster long-haul jets. Two hours more snoozing in business class is now less of a burden.

Then there’s the silly reasoning about Perth sharing the same clock as Denpasar. Bureaucrats and business folk who can’t handle timezones need an introduction to the Internet.

Power still resides around the nation’s south-east however much the south-west wishes otherwise. Perth doesn’t offer a “unique vantage point” as Flake claims. Westralians bathe in the Indian Ocean which laps Indonesia and India but that doesn’t make them any more conscious of their neighbours than Sydneysiders.

Tropical Darwin is a more logical fit for Asia watchers who prefer to peer from afar. Tagalog, Indonesian and Tetum are as common as Okker in Smith Street cafes. This is the place to garner gossip on what’s really going on in Manila, Jakarta and Dili.

USAsia’s lavish reports are useful backgrounders but none come within coo-ee of the punchy research from Sydney’s Lowy Institute.

There’s no evidence that USAsia’s work has stirred and startled, so little chance it will jolt politicians and shift policies Down Under. Washington may be another matter.

Wanting to strengthen relationships is meritorious. If USAsia was dinkum it would be confronting the ignorance about Asia revealed by Lowy surveys with vigor, advocating understanding, stirring the possum.

If there’s a strong case for maintaining a publicly-funded Asian research centre better it works on behalf of Australia, not a ‘foreign principal’.

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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