Australia is officially seeking to shore up its role in the Asia-Pacific regional order, following the United States in pivoting toward a fuller embrace of Asia. A government strategy document released over the weekend, “Australia in the Asian Century,” sets out an all-encompassing plan for Australia to engage with and capitalize on relations with its Asian neighbors. Australia has ridden out the global financial crisis largely due China’s insatiable demand for natural resources. Future economic growth, however, will require broadening Australia’s export base. The government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard commissioned the white paper to start planning for a future with deeper and more profitable relationships between Australia and its closest regional partners.
Underpinning the paper’s goals is the assumption that Australia needs to become a more “Asia-literate” and “Asia-capable” nation in order to seize the economic opportunities that will flow from Asia’s burgeoning middle class. The government has outlined a series of measures to achieve this, including ensuring that all school students learn an Asian language; requiring that public- and private-sector boards contain individuals with “deep experience in and knowledge of Asia”; expanding linkages between Australians and Asians for professional development; and supporting an Asia-Pacific free trade area.
Security issues do not receive headline focus in the white paper, but three distinct challenges to the security environment are identified: increasing pressures on water resources, food and energy supplies and air quality; the growth and modernization of China and India’s defense forces; and the growing empowerment of individuals and nonstate actors. The paper notes that these developments will not themselves make major-power conflict more likely, but they do make the consequences of any conflict more “far reaching and dangerous.” They also “raise the costs of miscalculation” and “give greater urgency to efforts to manage” flash points such as North Korea, the Taiwan Strait, the South China and East China Seas, and India and Pakistan. A defense white paper that is due to be released next year may address these concerns more fully.