The scale and pace of Asia’s transformation is unprecedented and the implications for Australia are profound. Australia’s geographic proximity, depth of skills, stable institutions and forward-looking policy settings place it in a unique position to take advantage of the growing influence of the Asian region.
The Australian Government commissioned a White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century to consider the likely economic and strategic changes in the region and what more can be done to position Australia for the Asian Century. Specifically, the paper includes:
- the current and likely future course of economic, political and strategic change in Asia, encompassing China, India, the key ASEAN countries as well as Japan and South Korea;
- the domestic economic and social opportunities and challenges of the Asian Century for Australia;
- opportunities for a significant deepening of our engagement with Asia across the board, including in the economy, science and technology collaboration, clean energy, education, business-to-business and people-to-people links and culture;
- the political and strategic implications of the Asian Century for Australia; and
- the role of effective economic and political regional and global cooperation.
The White Paper sets out a strategic framework to guide Australia’s navigation of the Asian Century. It also sets out a series of actions that will be taken over the next five years and further policy initiatives to be developed over the next 10 to 15 years.
Commissioned by a Labor Party-led government whose former Foreign Minister is an internationally acknowledged authority on Asia affairs, Kevin Rudd, the White Paper was formulated under the guidance of Ken Henry, a leading public policy expert and former head of Treasury. The panel, which led what was called a ‘whole-of-government task force’, included government officials, academics and businesspeople. Over the year-long period during which the panel worked it received numerous submissions from concerned parties and individuals.
A day after of the release of the White Paper, although unrelated to it, the government in its continuing, makeshift response to the increased numbers of refugees who brave the elements in boats to seek asylum in Australia, moved to have our island continent itself excluded from what is known as the country’s ‘migration zone’. This means in effect even if asylum seekers make landfall on Terra Australis they have done little more than touch down on what Crikey artist First Dog On The Moon calls ‘Unaustralia’, a twenty-first century ‘terra nullius‘. As a result, they must still be dispatched offshore to one of Australia’s Pacific island detention camps for refugee processing. This policy of ‘continental excision’ was previously proposed by a Liberal Coalition government; at the time it was decried as ‘lunacy’ by the Labor Party and others.
We invited the CIW-based historian David Brophy to consider the mercurial definition of ‘Asia’ provided in the Glossary of the White Paper.—The Editors
In recent days the Australian government has moved to excise mainland Australia from the country’s own legal map. In the parallel universe inhabited by our politicians, in which humanitarian interests are best served by consigning asylum seekers to years of legal limbo, Australia is now morphing into its opposite, ‘Unaustralia’. At such a juncture, it might be worth considering the Labor Party led government’s flexible approach to geography in another context.
The Australian Government’s White Paper Australia in the Asian Century, released on 28 October, charts a course towards 2025 via a market and digitally-driven engagement with a comfortably middle class and cashed-up Asia. For a document resounding with certainty about Australia’s future source of prosperity, though, there is little consistency in the White Paper’s understanding of the actual location of ‘Asia’.
The glossary of the document offers no fewer than eight different configurations of the region, the region expanding and contracting at the will of the much-anticipated document’s authors. As they write: ‘The definition of Asia for the purposes of the charts varies due to data constraints’. The White Paper then offers eight delineations of ‘Asia’ to cover the array of charts and statistics presented:
Charts 1, 1.1, 2.1 and A.2: Asia refers to Australia, Bangladesh, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.
Charts 1.5 and 2.11: Asia refers to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Macao, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam.
Charts 2.2, 2.3, 2.5 and 2.7: Asia refers to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.
Charts 2.9, 4.4 and 7.1: Asia refers to Brunei, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam.
Chart 4.8: Asia refers to Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Georgia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Tibet, Timor-Leste, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
Chart 8.2: Asia refers to Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Georgia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyz Republic, Laos, Lebanon, Macao, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, the Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Chart 9.1: Asia refers to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam.
Chart 9.2: Asia refers to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Timor-Leste, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.
This is hardly surprising; continents are, after all, slippery concepts, relics of out-dated and essentialist cultural geography, you might say. ‘Asia’ is a European invention: no one in India or Japan ever thought they were living in Asia until imperial merchants and colonial intruders told them so. Still, is it too much to ask whether, upon entering the much vaunted ‘Asian century’ the nation’s leaders might proffer a cogent view on where the promised land lies, even if only for practical reasons? Which countries, economic zones, linguistic realms or, indeed, cultures will end up being included in the ‘Asian’ component of the proposed new Australian educational curriculum?
This word-cloud offers a diagrammatic impression of which countries make the cut most often in the White Paper, and which others (indicated by decreasing size) are only occasionally admitted to Asia.
Not surprisingly, Australia’s neighbours in East and Southeast Asia form what might be dubbed ‘core Asia’, though even here there are some anomalies. South Korea is solidly ‘Asian’ but, more often than not, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is excised. Historically it could be argued that such a framing of Asia as ‘East and Southeast Asia’ has been dominant in Australian discourse. After all, Australians generally don’t refer to people from India or Pakistan as ‘Asians’ they way they do in Britain. Nonetheless, a notion of ‘South Asia’ is now catching on; India and surrounding countries feature prominently in the White Paper, and Hindi, long ignored by the funders-that-be, is now promoted to become a ‘priority Asian language’ for schools, although this is at the expense of Korean, and even though Korea is Australia’s fourth largest trading partner. The glossary also proposes a ‘North East Asia’ that includes Mongolia. But although Ulaan Baatar is to host Australia’s next Asian embassy, Mongolia only qualifies as part of Asia in half of the definitions. Finally, Central Asia, despite the name, would appear to be far from central to Asia: the former Soviet republics, or ‘-stans’, are only included in the White Paper’s definition of ‘Asia’ on two occasions.
Then there’s Asia as the ‘Orient’ or the East, which one enters by taking the ferry across the Bosphorus to Anatolia, or by traversing the Caucasus Mountains. Two definitions of Asia in the White Paper expand the region to include both the Middle East and the Caucasus. Curiously, the boundaries of this vision of Asia coincide with the fortified checkpoints separating the ‘Asian’ West Bank and Gaza Strip from ‘European’ Israel (as, incidentally, does the definition of Asia propounded by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association [FIFA]).
Predictably, the authors of Australia in the Asian Century put such geo-economic instability down to ‘data constraints’. What exactly does this mean? The broadest definition of Asia, the one that takes in Armenia, East Timor, and everything else in between, also happens to be the one chosen by the authors to calculate the amount of Australia’s aid to Asia (Chart 8.2). Is this a coincidence? Or are the authors ‘constrained’ by a desire to make Australia look as generous as possible towards our Asian friends?
There is of course a considerable body of writing that discusses the way in which geographical concepts such as Asia arise and evolve. In March this year, the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) held a workshop, ‘The Past and Present of Inner Asian Studies‘, aimed at tracing the intellectual origins of various notions of Inner, or Central, Asia. At that meeting, bureaucratic convenience was not mentioned, or debated, as a factor that should shape (or limit) our view of the world and its constituent parts. Given the increasing lock-step relationship between research and government priorities, especially in the Asian Century, should it have been?
Then there’s the question of politics: Taiwan is conspicuously absent from all eight of the White Paper’s definitions of Asia. Despite having been disappeared in the glossary definitions, however, it is often referred to in the text of the White Paper. Is the ‘renegade province’/‘Republic of China’ occluded from view to keep Beijing happy? Is Australian beating a march by realising on paper the reunification of China? Maybe; but then again the White Paper violates the PRC’s ‘one country two systems’ policy by listing Hong Kong and Macau as distinct from China. It even strikes a blow for the ethnic separatists by including Tibet in one of its definitions. Why not Xinjiang, the Uyghurs may well ask?
Given all this, it will come as no surprise that those seeking an answer to the perennial question – Is Australia an Asian country? – will be disappointed. You see, sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. And the same goes for New Zealand.
But when the Labor Party government of Australia passes its new legislation defining Australia itself out of existence, who’s going to be left to ask anyway?
For First Dog On The Moon’s ‘Advance Unaustralia Fair’, see: http://www.crikey.com.au/2012/10/31/advance-unaustralia-fair/. Our thanks to Linda Jaivin for bringing this eloquent work to our attention.