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Sanctuary in Peril

By Reg Little - posted Monday, 27 September 2010


The Quarterly Essay's last two editions, Power Trip and Power Shift, have focused attention in contrasting ways on the problematic character of Australia's handling of its position in the world, particularly the impact of the rise of China on traditional Australian alliance dependencies.

David Marr's Power Trip prefaced the stark revelation of the disaffection inspired by mandarin speaking former Prime Minister Rudd. Hugh White's Power Shift highlights a critical national challenge, which some think is too serious for Australians to discuss openly and about which Mr Rudd misleads the nation.

There is a pressing need to evaluate the dissatisfaction inspired in Australia's dynamic region by various forms of neglect indulged in by Australia's new Foreign Minister. This need is intensified by the fact that Prime Minister Gillard shows little awareness of the challenges facing the sanctuary she spoke of protecting from small boat loads of refugees. The critics of Power Shift are correct in highlighting the fundamental importance of the American alliance for Australia. This is true in political, military and psychological terms. Perhaps the psychological dependence is greatest. Modern Australia has been totally defined and highly privileged within a global order determined by Anglo-American power.

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Australians are in no way prepared or educated to adjust to another order of power.

Prime Minister Gillard illustrated this when she listed Australia's external priorities as the American alliance, support for Israel, the commitment to Afghanistan and the (undifferentiated) region, where she was having problems with two of its smaller members, East Timor and Fiji.

Mr Rudd has failed even more nakedly. He took over 100 Australian bureaucrats to Copenhagen on a pointless mission, once China decided to pair the American President with the Chinese Prime Minister. Mr Rudd's inadequacies led to the destruction of his own personal, professional and national aspirations.

This also highlighted the troubling quality of Chinese language and cultural education in Australia. What, apart from the ability to deliver credibly and publicly polite courtesies in Chinese, did he learn while gaining a First Class Honours Degree in Chinese from the Australian National University.

Worse, however, than disaster in Copenhagen has been the way, in concert with Australian media, academia and think tanks, the Rudd Government succeeded in keeping Australians ignorant of the daunting changes taking place in regional and global order. The Global Financial Crisis is known in Australia largely as grounds for self congratulatory claims to have used stimulus spending to outperform other Western economies. There is little evaluation of the damage inflicted on American global authority or of dangers developing in currency wars, or of the chasm growing between America's military posture and economic reality.

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Even more seriously, Australians are oblivious to the way the Crisis created in ASEAN plus Three a global financial centre in waiting or prompted China to refocus from seducing Western consumers to building very fast trains. These are capable of linking Beijing to London, and to Johannesburg, and have the potential to transform the geo-politics and geo-commerce of Eurasia and Africa. There is much else that never appears on any Australian foreign affairs radar. Indeed, some news media and their contributors are committed to keeping Australians ignorant.

Sadly, major Australian political parties tend to dumb down both the Australian electorate and Australian diplomatic activity. Foreign relations are photo opportunities for leading ministers and then become an unwelcome distraction from the only business in town - winning office by working over electoral ignorance. Unfortunately, the present Labour Government has excelled in this - appointing a Foreign Minister whimsically able to dictate to it, while turning national diplomacy into a personal vaudeville show.

It is going to take more than vitriolic, or nostalgic, attacks on the Power Shift thesis to shelter the Australian sanctuary from tectonic shifts in global order. Sadly, the Prime Minister's years in charge of education offer no reason for confidence. The Education Revolution never graduated from rhetoric to policy, let alone action, and she mastered too little of the portfolio to understand that the word "skills" does not adequately cover the role of universities. A competent opposition will reveal much more, without even touching the neglect of serious Asian studies.

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About the Author

Reg Little was an Australian diplomat from 1963 to 1988. He gained high level qualifications in Japanese and Chinese and served as Deputy of four and Head of one overseas Australian diplomatic mission. He is the co-author of The Confucian Renaissance (1989) and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australias Asian Destiny (1997) and author of A Confucian Daoist Millennium? (2006). In 2009, he was elected the only non-ethnic Asian Vice Chairman of the Council of the Beijing based International Confucian Association. His other writings can be found on his website: www.confucian-daoist-millennium.net.

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