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Reheating the Beans: The Gillard White Paper on Asia

Reheating the Beans: The Gillard White Paper on Asia

by Binoy Kampmark
October 30, 2012

It has a familiar ring to it. Australia, that White Tribe of Asia, is now sounding desperate, hoping for recognition in a region it has struggled to comprehend since the days of British colonisation. If human beings are seeking to find the common thread of expression, that elemental language amongst Babel’s sea of tongues, then we can say that the White Paper on the Asian Century seeks to do so – in part.

This is, however, only the start. There are, altogether, 25 speculative objectives. Four “Asian” languages have been selected as priorities: Chinese, Indonesian, Hindi and Japanese. The report deems it fundamental that every child be given the chance to learn an Asian language throughout their education in a school system that “will be in the top five in the world”. Globally, Australia will be ranked in the top five countries for ease of doing business and our innovation system will be in the world’s top 10. Astrology is a superb thing in some ways, but dangerous in politics.

All of this goes to show that the Australian political establishment can’t quite work out where it stands. It curtsies and adores the American military machine, bedding it with compulsive lasciviousness. It also knows the world’s largest Muslim population lies to its poorly defended North, not that any half-bright hack in Jakarta would be interested in shedding blood on desolate Australian soil.

The problem in terms of how Australia sees its neighbours is rooted in a mythology of fears, a codebook of concerns that goes back to the infancy of the nation. To the north lie devils and merchants, terrors and opportunities. Even the term ‘Asia’ is odd and somewhat ridiculous – a huge, variable continent, the most populous on the planet, cobbled together under a term that has little meaning other than differently shaped eyes, cuisine and well lined pockets. It doesn’t even have a location other than to say “China” and “minerals”, which is what the standard mining mastodon will comprehend. We dig, they buy.

A glance at the document shows that a barely coherent undergraduate must have come up with the daft expressions. Ditto the press releases. The paper provided a “roadmap showing how Australia can be a winner in the Asian Century.” (Presumably, with that fabled horse race the Melbourne Cup nearing, a “winner” analogy is appropriate, begging the question what a “loser” might be.)

The term “Asian Century” is used time and time again, providing a fitful reminder how foolish it is to pick centuries before they have begun, let alone dubious labels to peg on to them. This does not bother Adrian Vickers of the University of Sydney’s Asia Studies Program. “The Asian Century is already well underway. Shouldn’t we have been planning for that quite a while ago?” (ABC Online, Oct 30).

In the 1980s, management books and recommendations were speaking of the immutable, unchallenged Japanese century to come, of management philosophies that would stand the test of time. How things do change. Slogans, however, tend to retain their banality.

The theme continues through the document – Australia is chasing the ball, scurrying after it, panting and heaving with enthusiasm. “With Asia set to become the world’s largest economic region before the end of this decade the Asian century offers our nation immense opportunities.” That “zone” will be largest in terms of production and consumption – so says the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer Wayne Swan.

Sadly, there is nothing remarkable about the White Paper, and the fuss surrounding it is wooden, and out of date before it starts. In the 1990s, the Keating government was interested in promoting languages from the Asia-Pacific region with an almost ferocious intensity. Australian schools became a well-decked smorgasbord of linguistic experimentation. Engagement under the Hawke-Keating stewardship was with “Asia” in anticipation of what would become an economic super-hub. This proved all too colourful for Australian school syllabi during the Howard years, where dull was always better.

The White Paper tends to dabble in a good deal of fantasy in ignoring the chronic problems associated with resources. Language programs are actually losing numbers. Universities in Australia are reaching for their secateurs, suggesting that they are unviable. We are actually entertaining the prospects of a less “Asia” literate society.

Structurally speaking, the report seems to have come out of a vacuum. Just as the White Paper was being released, a parliamentary sub-committee was scathing about Australia’s feeble presence in such areas as “Asia”, at least in the diplomatic sense. Chairman Nick Champion was fairly logical in his summation. “If you put more resources in, you’ll get more posts.” Australia’s foreign affairs minister Bob Carr claims that the shoestring budget for his department is more than adequate to fulfil the White Paper goals. Let the sleepwalking continue.

What then, is the real focus? At its core, the rationale is economic. Australia wants Chinese markets without Chinese influences; the proceeds without the consequences; the cash without the people. The Treasurer’s press release is instructive. “We have already seen Asia’s demand for raw materials create an extraordinary boom in minerals and energy investment, and Asia’s ongoing industrialisation and urbanisation will continue to drive robust demand for a wide range of mineral resources.” Essentially, Australia is “Asia’s” water carrier – and it loves it.

It wants to be part of Asia, but in a controlled, sanitised way. It wants to participate in a U.S. redeployment of its forces without agitating China, even as Washington’s “pivot” into the Asia-Pacific hopes to check the advance of Beijing. With an increased U.S. presence in Darwin, Canberra is hoping for the best of all worlds. In the end, it will get neither.

In the final analysis, this puffed self-important, childish document differs very little from previous formulae. To be Asian, or not to be? The Antipodean Hamlet keeps asking the question, and remains, as ever, confused.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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