Australia Asian Century White Paper Terms Reference

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Political cleansing was delivered as policy vandalism when the prime minister’s department deleted the Asian century white paper from its digital record (the polite term is archived).

Savour the irony that the Asian century paper is still available on the Defence site.

Australia is located in the right place at the right time—in the Asian region in the Asian century.

— The sunny optimism of the ‘Asian century’ faces the dark forebodings of the ‘Indo-Pacific’. The headline has the single merit of setting up this biggest of questions.

Defence understands the need to record the history of your victories.

And it’s a major win when your department hands Canberra the new construct for the region.When Australia’s defenceniks started using the term Indo-Pacific six years ago, they emphasised it was merely a useful policy construct—a tool for understanding—but not a force determinant.The US Indo-Pacific strategy means the tool has been weaponised.The two terms describe the same set of players and forces, but arrange them in different orders with different weightings. Crudely, Asian century usage blends liberal internationalism with an optimistic view of Asia entering a new phase of deeper and broader engagement, privileging geoeconomics over geopolitics.Asian century versus Indo-Pacific is crude simplification. The Indo-Pacific gives more weight to geopolitics, shifting the focus from economic bonanza to describe an arena for surging strategic rivalry, now the label for a US strategy.The 2013 defence white paper gave minimal linguistic obeisance rather than conceptual obedience to Gillard’s vision: the document used the Indo-Pacific 58 times while mentioning the Asian century white paper 10 times.When the Liberal–National coalition won the 2013 election, the Asian century usage became Canberra cactus, too prickly to touch. As Henry laments, his paper ‘has had no impact on policy, not even on the tenor of public policy debate in Australia’.Gillard needed some foreign policy not owned by her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, and Asian century was it.The Asian century language came from Treasury and the quintessential Treasury man of his generation, Ken Henry, got to write the policy (although as Henry’s draft blew out towards 500 pages, the head of the Office of National Assessments, Allan Gyngell, was drafted to slash it to 300 pages and add a pinch of foreign policy coherence).Varghese’s third contribution (in a report on getting India into APEC) offers these reasons for the Indo-Pacific construct: As Varghese observes: ‘A common understanding of the Indo-Pacific will not however in itself alleviate strategic tensions, or ensure enhanced economic integration.’ And, fourth, Varghese’s ASPI speech on what’s coming at us: ‘Trends are like waves.We can see them on the horizon but we don’t know exactly when they will break and in what pattern they will reach the shore.’ This is a debate with no easy end in sight.


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