Beyond The Looking Glass Revisited: Reviewing 20 Years Of Australia's Asian Engagement

Article

Abstract. A little over twenty years ago, Gareth Evans, then Australian foreign minister outlined Canberra’s approach to engagement in the region in a landmark speech that came to be seen as the principal intellectual justification for Australia’s ‘turn’ to Asia in the early 1990s. Twenty years hence...

Abstract. A little over twenty years ago, Gareth Evans, then Australian foreign minister outlined Canberra’s approach to engagement in the region in a landmark speech that came to be seen as the principal intellectual justification for Australia’s ‘turn’ to Asia in the early 1990s. Twenty years hence, it is timely to review Evans’ remarks, and the vision of Australia’s Asian engagement he laid out at that time. The Asia of today is in many ways profoundly different to the one Evans’ anticipated, and his vision of the ‘Asia-Pacific’, although widespread in academic and policy debates, is largely obsolete as a concept of political or economic community. The principal conclusion to be drawn from twenty years of Australian engagement with Asia is that a more accurate geographic representation of Australia’s ‘place on the map’ in the emerging ‘Asian century’ is essential.
 
Introduction
A little over twenty years ago in an address to the Asia-Australia Institute at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia’s then foreign minister, Gareth Evans, outlined the government’s approach to Australian engagement in the region in the coming ‘Asian century’ (Evans, 1991). These remarks, and the subsequent journal article Australia in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific: Beyond the Looking Glass [1] quickly came to be seen as the principal intellectual justification for Australia’s ‘turn’ to Asia in the early 1990s. Twenty years hence, it is perhaps time to review Evans’ remarks, and the vision of Australia’s Asian engagement he laid out, given the extraordinary economic and political transformation that that the region has undergone, and in such a fundamentally different direction than he had anticipated.
 
This paper will proceed in four parts. It begins with a sketch of the contours of the geography of the ‘Asia-Pacific, as suggested by Evans, and his view of how, in  this context, Australia was to find a ‘place on the map’ in Asia, without actually needing to be, or to become, an ‘Asian nation.’ Following on from this is a closer examination of the economic, political and security conditions underpinning Evans’ idea of an Asia-Pacific region, and the key elements that he assumed would mark Asian regionalism in the 21st century.
 
Next, I present ‘Asia’ as it stands today, in the process illustrating the deep flaws in Evans’ early assumptions, which had been so important to justifying Australia’s early engagement with Asia. The corollary is that Australia’s contemporary Asian engagement requires a view of the contours of Asian regionalism that better reflects contemporary realities; Asia-Pacific is, frankly, an obsolete and outdated concept. With these points in mind, I conclude by sketching a potentially more accurate geographic representation of Australia’s Asian neighbourhood. Drawing on recent arguments in support of an Indo-Pacific region – of which Australia could fairly be included – I offer a more suitable representation of Australia’s ‘place on the map’ in the emerging ‘Asian century.’


The ‘Turn to Asia’: Mapping Australia within the ‘Asia-Pacific’  
The great turn-around in contemporary Australian history is that the region from which we sought in the past to protect ourselves – whether by esoteric dictation tests for would-be immigrants, or tariffs, or alliances with the distant great and powerful – is now the region which offers Australia the most. It has come to be accepted that our future lies in the Asia-Pacific region. This is where we live, must survive strategically and economically, and find a place and a role if we are to develop our full potential as a nation. (Evans, 1991)
 
Evans’ remarks in 1991 came at the end of a rapid ‘turn’ to Asia in Australian foreign policy, which began with the election of the Hawke Labour government in 1983. While this was undoubtedly a re-orientation that in some ways simply sought to align actual policy with an economic and political reality that had been slowly emerging for Australia since the late 1960s, it nevertheless constituted an ambitious new direction in Australia’s posture to its neighbours in East Asia (Capling, 2008: 605).
 
Australia’s key diplomatic success in this period was to spearhead – in cooperation with the United States – of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, whose membership of 21 member states from around the Pacific Basin was basically coterminous with the geographic definition of Asia-Pacific community that Evans’ laid out, and has subsequently come to be accepted in scholarly and commercial discourse (Cooper, et. al., 1993; Mahbubani, 1995; Beeson, 2006).
 
Evans’ key point was that the nations of the rim were converging, in both economic and cultural terms as well as in matters of security. He argued in his later article that the watershed events of 1994 – the creation of APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) – had given birth to a nascent sense of trans-Pacific community, or community of the ‘Asia-Pacific’.  Technological convergence, in combination with economic and trading convergence, was the key force behind this emerging community (Evans, 1995: 106). Moreover, cultural convergence – underwritten by the settled use of English as a lingua franca and the new information technologies – was helping to establish a common sense of ‘region-ness.’
 
What of the suggestion that the idea of Asia-Pacific was premature, and that the regions of ‘East Asia’, ‘Oceania’, and ‘North’ and ‘South America’ were far more relevant geographic or regional expressions as far as intensity of trade flows and sense of ‘region-ness’ were concerned? While acknowledging these views, Evans re-iterated his Asia-Pacific construction, arguing that it was the ‘safest’ bet from the perspective of trying to find a conception that would sit comfortably with an Australian public that had always viewed itself as part of a Western democratic community:

 

[N]o one has any problem realising its Asia-Pacific role so far as the ‘Pacific’ component of the description is concerned, but there tends to be a little difficulty with the ‘Asia’ side of the equation when this is looked at in isolation … [There are many] who would feel more than a little discomfort describing Australia as ‘Asian’. For our own part, Prime Minister Paul Keating has readily conceded that Australia is not an ‘Asian nation’ … [W]e can usually avoid confronting this issue by linking the two components together: Australia being an ‘Asia-Pacific’ nation is easier to manage, conceptually and psychologically, than us being an ‘Asian’ one. (Evans, 1995: 111)
 
Mapping the region this way, as many scholars and commentators have come to observe since (see, for example, Buzan, 1998; Pempel, 2005; Beeson, 2006) was essentially a political compromise designed to make Asian engagement ‘safe’ for a nation that had no ‘natural friends or allies’ in a region that excluded the United States, Canada or New Zealand. As Ann Capling (2008: 603) observes: “Where the term ‘Asia-Pacific’ is used in Australian policy discourse, it signals deliberately the inclusion of the United States in definitions of ‘the region’.” So defining Australia has the effect, by sleight of hand and some neat “cartographical contortions,” (ibid. 608) of ensuring friendly Western nations – and the US in particular – are there alongside Australia, and that its engagement does not have to forego the familiar cultural and strategic understandings it had come to see as critical to its long-term security.
 
The Asia-Pacific: What kind of region in what kind of world?
What were the key assumptions that underpinned Evans’ picture of Asia-Pacific regionalism, and relatedly his vision of the contours of the approaching ‘Asian century’?
 
For a start, the region was conceived primarily in economic terms. As Evan’s himself mentioned, the 18 major economies of the APEC region accounted for nearly 45% of world trade, and 55% of its production (Evans, 1995: 100). In other words, the region is seen for the most part as a giant market of perhaps two billion consumers, with a fully integrated trading system comprising the three of the top five trading nations in the world at the time.
 
Relatedly, trade liberalisation – realised through the institutional vehicle of the much-vaunted APEC Forum – was seen as the principal agenda and purpose of regional co-operation, with economic self-interest driving the states of the region to establish the kinds of institutional arrangements that would facilitate greater liberalisation over time. This chimed with the view in Asia and indeed globally through the 1990s that expanding trade and democracy would secure the peace and ensure the international system continued to evolve in a more co-operative direction.
Evans’ assumptions about the nature of Asia-Pacific security and the structure of great power relationships in the region are instructive.  American primacy was simply assumed to continue in the region indefinitely, and a central role for the US in leading the region was the central assumption undergirding the entire Asia-Pacific project. The clear evidence of “China’s rise” was acknowledged in the abstract but there was no vision of what this might mean in concrete terms, nor any recognition – not even implicitly – that China’s rise must necessarily imply some kind of re-organisation of the regional order at some point in the future. Similarly, while potential challenges in the Taiwan Strait and Korean peninsula were mentioned, the doctrine of “co-operative security” and the possibility of dialogue and confidence-building within fora such as the ARF were presented as a realistic basis for establishing solutions to these challenges.
 
Notable too, were the critical absences on Evans’ Asia-Pacific canvas. India was literally nowhere to be seen, either as an economic power, or as a security player in the region. His picture also excluded the central Asian states and Turkey in the west. Most notably, Evans’ picture pre-dated the emergence of India and Pakistan as nuclear powers in the late 1990s, and of the emergence of the challenges of proliferation in the North Korean case.
 
Perhaps most significantly of all, in terms of Australia’s Asian engagement, Australia was – at least implicitly – seen as weak and essentially ‘suing for entry’ into a club whose bright economic prospects contrasted markedly with its own declining economic position. As Capling, 2008: 605) notes:
 
With an export profile dominated by agriculture and resource commodities and a highly protected manufacturing sector that produced almost exclusively for the small domestic market, Australia's economic structure was in many ways more akin to that of a developing country. By the mid-1980s, Australia was confronted with a steady deterioration in its terms of trade, a chronic balance-of-payments problem, and a real decline in national income. Moreover, Australia was experiencing a steady decline in its share of global trade and, more ominously, a decline in its economic significance in East Asia at precisely the same time that the region was emerging as a major force in the international economy.
 
Asian regionalism would be primarily economic and incorporate those nations primarily on the Pacific rim, involve cultural, technological and political convergence over time, be structured by an unending US primacy and some kind of abstract and vaguely defined emerging China, and Australia’s engagement would be predicated on a kind of feeble hitching to Asian economic dynamism in the hope of a secure economic future in the region. In short, Evans’ remarks at the time suggest he anticipated the Asian future would be much like the present at that time, only more so.
 
Asia Today: India in, China ascendant, and the United States on the way out
In the event, virtually every one of Evans’ assumptions has proved to be false. The only aspect of convergence that reflects the vision he laid out twenty years ago is that democracy is gradually becoming the ‘only game in town’ (with the admittedly significant exception of China). Since 1991, the South Korean and Taiwanese democracies have consolidated fully, with Malaysia, the Philippines, and possibly Singapore, well on the way. Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s most populous nation has democratised extraordinarily rapidly following the fall of Suharto in 1998. While Indochina and Thailand remain difficult zones of democratisation, recent events in Burma confirm the overall trend (Desai, 2012).
 
How does the Asia of today compare to the vision of Asia-Pacific laid out by Evans in the early 1990s? In the first place, today’s Asia is not about to become a zone of free trade. While Asian economic development has continued apace, and the trading relationship between the US and China having emerged as symbiotic one of deep integration, the trade liberalisation agenda in the region (and indeed globally) is now very much on the backburner. By 2000, APEC had largely declined as a critical institution in the region (Milner, 2003: 12). There has been a shift to preferential trade agreements in the region (PTAs), which have become the preferred vehicle for trade liberalisation in the region (Desker, 2004). These have been of little benefit to either Australia, or arguably to the region as a whole as “they deliver relatively trivial gains” due to the exclusion of so many tradables and the costs of rules-of-origin compliance (Dee, 2008: 151).
 
Moreover, the region is today understood as much in security terms (and realpolitik ones at that) as it is in economic ones. North Korea looms large as a challenging issue, with no clear end-game in sight, and the concern of regime destabilisation recurring (Kang, 2011/12). Tensions in the South China Sea, simmering for years, have recently escalated dramatically with few established international mechanisms for a resolution to the conflict, or institutionalised principles that might inform such a resolution (Perlez, 2012). Nuclear proliferation and the issue of uranium sales are thorny issues in the development of India’s security and broader political relationships in the region (Smith, 2010).
 
In this context, China’s rise is having concrete effects. China will soon overtake the US as the world’s largest economy, and has begun to develop the capacity to project power beyond its shores and acquire other complicated weapons systems. As High White (2011) and Andrew Phillips (2011) have recently argued, the regional settlement of 1972 is drawing to a close as China begins to challenge US primacy in the region and to assert its own regional aspirations. Notwithstanding the recent US ‘pivot to Asia,’ the United States primacy in East Asia cannot endure, and its allies in the region have very difficult questions to answer about what kind of regional order they would like to see emerge in that context.
 
Significantly, the notable absences in Evans’ ‘Asia-Pacific’ region have emerged as key players. Central Asia’s economies, booming for the most part off the back of their new role in the global political economy of energy security, are now a critical dimension of Asian regionalism. Moreover, two of the world’s key emerging economies – India and Turkey – not even mentioned in Evans’ picture of Asian regionalism have appeared as regional powers, at the west and in the south of the larger Asian regional configuration.
 
Finally, and most importantly in terms of Australia’s engagement with the region, the feeble Australian economy of the early 1990s has been transformed almost out of all recognition. As a result of structural reform in the 1980s and 1990s, and the impact of the massive increase in global commodity prices over the past 15 years, Australia’s economic performance has been nothing short of transformative. A recent article in The Economist newspaper noted that of all the OECD countries, only Turkey, Israel, Ireland and Korea have experienced more growth – and this growth has been distributed more or less equitably.[2]
 
Australia is now the leading supplier of a range of key raw materials such as gold, iron ore, copper, and natural gas to the booming Chinese and Indian economies, commodities that are fetching record prices. An investment boom in Australia’s gas and oil sector is projected to ensure this continues into the medium term. A recent report noted that more than $175 billion in new projects are in construction, which will most likely lead Australia to overtake Qatar as the world's biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas before 2020. In short, Australia is no longer a bit-player in Asia but central to its economic development and performance, and commands a leading middle-power role in the region in that context.

The Indo-Pacific: Mapping Australia’s Regional Place in the 21st Century
What are we to make of these developments for thinking about Australia’s ‘place on the map’ in the new Asian century? One recent suggestion by former Australian prime minister is to think of Australia as being at the bottom left hand corner of an “Indo-Pacific” region stretching from Turkey in top-right hand corner, to Japan in the top left. Rudd developed this idea in a 2009 speech at the Asia Foundation in San Francisco.  Rudd’s core argument was that in the future, the Indian Ocean would become as central to maritime security thinking and defense planning for Australia as the Pacific is currently.  For Rudd, ‘Asia Pacific’ remains a relic of WWII and Cold War era strategic thinking. The "Indo-Pacific" concept in contrast better captures the most relevant strategic and security dynamics in the present era.
 
What are the advantages of such a regional conception for Australia’s engagement with the region, in light of the contemporary realities sketched above? In the first place, it recognises the securitisation of the Asian region, and the new focus on maritime security challenges from the East China Sea to the Arabian Sea. It puts both the West Pacific and the Indian Ocean squarely in the picture in this context, and is particularly relevant in its recognition of the new significance of the Indian-Chinese relationship as an emerging strategic dynamic in the region.
 
Moreover, this conceptualization anticipates India’s rise, particularly as a naval power. India's maritime priority will always be the Indian Ocean, but its navy will increasingly need to move freely in other theatres to maintain access to resources and markets. As such, India will benefit from a stable and uniform order that extends well beyond the Straits of Malacca, as the remit of its navy increasingly extends to the South China Sea and China grows wary of threats to its supply routes through the Indian Ocean. The map also incorporates the Central Asian states in the energy security of the region, as well as including Pakistan and North Korea and Japan.
 
Of course, a reorientation of the map of Asian regionalism so defined cannot be achieved in the delivery of the speeches of statesmen. It is critically important that it does not include the United States, for if it is to be prudent Asian regional order in the 21st century will have to contend with the decline of US primacy. It will require regional powers to embrace and integrate this new framing of the map, and the inclusion of the Southeast Asian littoral is critical in this context.
 
Conclusion
Twenty years after Gareth Evans’ Looking Glass remarks and his vision of Australia’s Asian engagement in the 21st century, it is clear that the Asia of today is profoundly different to the picture of the Asia-Pacific Evans’ anticipated in 1991. With US primacy waning, India and China rising, and new security challenges emerging, the idea of an Asia-Pacific region that straddles the Pacific Rim is, for the most part, obsolete as a concept of political or economic community. The principal conclusion to be drawn from twenty years of Australian engagement with Asia is that a more accurate geographic representation of Australia’s ‘place on the map’ in the emerging ‘Asian century’ is essential. One possible representation is former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s notion of the “Indo-Pacific”, one that offers the prospect of a much more integrated regional engagement for Australia.

Simon WATMOUGH, Visiting Fellow, Center for Asian Studies,
Boğaziçi University, PhD Researcher, European University Institute, Italy

References
(2011). ‘Australia's promise: The next Golden State’ The Economist (May 26), pp. 35-42
Beeson, Mark (2006). ‘American Hegemony and Regionalism: The Rise of East Asia and the End of the Asia-Pacific,’ Geopolitics, vol. 11, no. 4 (January), pp. 541-560
Buzan, Barry (1998). ‘The Asia Pacific: What Sort of Region in What Sort of World?” in Christopher Brook, and Anthony McGrew (eds.) Asia-Pacific in the New World Order (London: Routledge), pp. 68-87
Capling, Ann (2006), ‘Twenty years of Australia’s engagement with Asia,’ The Pacific Review, vol. 21, no. 5 (December), pp. 601-622.
Cooper, Andrew, Richard Higgott, and Kim Nossal (1993). Relocating Middle Powers: Australia and Canada in a Changing World Order. (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press).
Dee, Philippa (2008). ‘The economic effects of PTAs,’ Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 62, no. 2 (August), pp. 151-63
Desai, Meghnad (2012). ‘The resurgence of Asia,’ Asian Affairs, vol. 43, no. 1 (Feb), pp. 1-11.
Desker, Brian (2004). ‘In defence of FTAs: from purity to pragmatism in East Asia,’ The Pacific Review, vol. 17, no. 1 (February), pp. 3-26.
Evans, Gareth (1991). ‘Managing Australia’s Asian Future,’ Third Asia Lecture, Asia-Australia Institute, University of New South Wales (2 October).
Evans, Gareth (1995). ‘Australia in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific: Beyond the Looking Glass,’ Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 49, no. 1 (May), pp. 99-113.
Evans, Gareth and Bruce Grant (1995). Australia’s Foreign Relations, (2nd ed). (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press).
Kang, David C. (2011/12). ‘They Think They're Normal: Enduring Questions and New Research on North Korea—A Review Essay,’ International Security, vol. 36, no. 3 (Winter ), pp. 142-171
Mahbubani, Kishore (1995). ‘The Pacific Way,’ Foreign Affairs, vol. 74, no. 1 (Jan/Feb), pp. 100-11.
Martin, Dean (2012). ‘Australia Adjusts to Its New Energy Role,’ Wall Street Journal (May 20), p. B2
Milner, Anthony (2003). ‘Reviewing our Asian engagement’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 57, no. 1 (June), pp. 9-16.
Pempel, T. J. (2005). ‘Introduction: Emerging Webs of Regional Connectedness,’ in T. J. Pempel (ed.) Remapping East Asia: The Construction of a Region (Cornell: Cornell University Press), pp. 1-30.
Perlez, Jane (2012). ‘Beijing Exhibiting New Assertiveness in South China Sea,’ New York Times (May 31), p. 12
Phillips, Andrew (2011). ‘From the age of asymmetry to the great reconvergence: securing order in the Asian century,’ Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 65, no. 1 (June), 94-101
Smith, Gary (2010). 'Australia and the rise of India,' Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 64, no. 5 (November), pp. 566-82
White, H. (2011). 'Power shift: rethinking Australia's place in the Asian century,’ Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 65, no. 1 (June), pp. 81-93
 
 
 


[1] Gareth Evans (1995). ‘Australia in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific: Beyond the Looking Glass,’ Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 49, no. 1 (May), pp. 99-113.
[2] ‘Australia's promise: The next Golden State’ The Economist (May 26), pp. 35-42

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