The eagerly awaited ‘Australia in the Asian Century white paper’ was launched last week, throwing a visual marker (a balloon if you like) to show Asia we are both here and know that Asia is there. One hurdle, the lack of funding required to implement even the most basic of the reports 25 recommendations (or to do what is really necessary, and go further still), has been its major criticism (there exists a plethora of excellent analysis on both the Lowy Interpreter and ASPI’s The Strategist that dissects the report itself and explores its implications). What hasn’t really been picked up on and what to a greater extent trumps this issue is that without popular public support that would enable this (the required funding) to happen; the Australia in the Asian Century concept/balloon is likely to return to Australian soil just as quickly as it went up.
So what’s the problem? Ultimately, this is an issue concerning momentum and desire (or capacity and will), you can’t launch a hot air balloon and once up attempt to replace its burners with tea-light candles and expect it to remain aloft for too long, nor will you get very far if the people you’re attempting to take up simply don’t want to go. Will and capacity will continue to hold Australia back and so for the time being, Australia is likely to remain (to a greater extent) a spectator to the Asian Century, as it unfolds around us.
So what about capacity? In Australia, domestic politics is ‘King’ and a return to surplus the desired ‘jewel in the crown’. This, for the foreseeable future and under the current Labor government (an extant obsession in-part because the Coalition opposition are unlikely to allow them to forget their promise to ‘return to surplus by 2013’) will remain both the central focus and restraint on Australia’s fiscal capacity, preventing the government from doing more even if they genuinely wanted to.
So what about will? The bottom line is that (generally speaking) a large number of Australians simply don’t care enough about what happens beyond Australia’s shores- it is important to note that I am not suggesting this is a uniquely Australian issue.The Australia in the Asian Century white paper, a report that will mostly have been read by the ‘already converted’, will have made little to no impact on this key group, the ‘so what-ers’. The people who read the report are very likely the same people who helped contribute to its creation or are international relations/foreign affairs ‘wonks’ (like you and me) already, and have a good idea what is happening and what needs to be done. The white paper will have had minimal impact, if any, on the majority of people whom make-up Australian society and it is this group that essentially needs convincing.
So what? Education and Asian literacy were highlighted as key determinate factors in translating Australia’s Asian Century vision in to a reality, and so well they should be. However, education doesn’t simply begin and end in the class room. The greatest challenge (and something that will continue to hold Australia back unless otherwise addressed) is the need to communicate, educate and convince the large ‘so what-ers’ group as to the opportunities (what’s in it for them) and risks associated with the ‘Australia in the The Asian Century’ concept; the greatest risk being that ‘we’ simply miss the boat the opportunities and fall short of making the necessary transition from being an Asian Century spectator to Asian Century player.
So what next? The Australia in the Asian Century concept has been launched, how long the idea remains aloft will ultimately be determined by funding. Convincing the ‘so what-ers’ is the solution, I’m convinced of it. This is achievable. How this is achieved, well that’s a whole other story.
Ben Moles completed a Masters in International Security Studies at the University of Sydney last year and was recently an International Security Program intern at the Lowy Institute. (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). Follow on Twitter @bwmoles