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Indonesia and Australia in the 'Asian Century'

By Richard Woolcott - posted Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The rise of Asia is being driven by the unprecedented transfer of wealth from the West to the East, from the Atlantic to the Pacific which is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. This seismic shift, driven by the spectacular economic growth of China in particular but also by the rise of India, the continuing economic strengths of Japan and South Korea in addition to the growing potential of Indonesia and Vietnam, constitute an historic global turning point to which Australia must respond if we are not to find ourselves left behind.

It has recently become something of a cliché but we do live in a greatly changed and much more interconnected world now. The Asia Pacific is the region where the world's major power relationships most closely intersect. It is where the template for the United States/China relationship will be shaped. It is also the crucible in which the inter-relationships on Asia Pacific issues between Indonesia, Australia United States, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the main other ASEAN countries will be forged.

In this rapidly changing world, we need to put outdated Cold War thinking behind us. Australia needs to decide whether it wants to cling to a historic past or be actively engaged in Asia's future. I believe we need to develop a more comprehensive and integrated strategy for the future and then secure bipartisan political support and much wider public acceptance of the strategy.


I have some concern that in this changing world Australia is losing ground. At present Australia brings to my mind an image of a marathon runner, carrying a 10KG back pack. We can see some neighboring countries pulling ahead of us and at present, because of our turbulent political situation, we seem unable to increase our pace. One can only hope that, once the general election next September is behind us, the incoming Government will focus on how Australia can increase its productivity and reduce the obstacles to our engagements.

I recall when I was posted in Moscow travelling by train on the Siberian railway between Omsk and Kharborovsk listening to two Russians talking about the future of the Soviet Union. One said "we are building a new communist society". His more cynical and realistic companion replied "yes, only in the media". This remark 50 years ago has a resonance for me in Australia today.

The fact is that we are not doing as well with our Asian engagement as the regular rhetoric and diet of "spin" emerging from Ministerial offices would have the public believe. For example the study of Asian language, especially Bahasa Indonesia, in our schools and universities has substantially diminished in recent years.

Australianeeds a fundamental change to its national psyche, focused more on Asia than on our traditional links with the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. We also need a continuous and sustained, rather than a spasmodic approach to the countries of Asia.

The idea that Australians do not have to choose between our history and our geography is simplistic and has been a politically expedient cliché to avoid considering in depth our relationships with the United States and China. Our history is our past; some of it noble and some of it shameful. The reality is that our future lies in our geography. The steadily increasing importance of Asia and the need for Australia to adjust to its geographical environment is of course not new. Successive governments have advocated this but their responses, so far, have yet to reach stated outcomes or government rhetoric and have been far from adequate.

A key task for the Australian Government which comes to power in September will be to determine a more appropriate and updated balance in our relations with the United States and China, the emerging super power. Another will be to reinforce with action and funding, the Government's rhetoric about our role in the Asia Pacific region.


There is currently a debate as to whether the United States is in decline or whether it will continue to maintain a strong involvement in Asia and another debate on whether China's economic progress will stumble as a rising Chinese middle class may challenge the continuing authoritarian rule of the Communist Party of China.

The United States, traditionally a major importer of natural gas and coal, is now undergoing a great change. Its production of shale gas means that the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as a producer of oil and gas by 2020. Problems which seemed insurmountable five years ago will now be surmounted. So although the United States faces considerable domestic financial problems it would be wrong to assume that it is in economic decline and will prove unable to maintain a strong role and presence in Asia.

In respect of China, there is no intrinsic reason why China, under its system of authoritarian capitalism, through which some four hundred million people have been lifted out of poverty, cannot continue to rise peacefully, provided that the new leadership under Premier Xi Jinping, established earlier this year, manages the major social and economic problems which China will need to address.

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This is an edited version of a speech given by Richard Woolcott AC to the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne Law School on May 21, 2013.

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About the Author

Richard Woolcott AC was Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 1988 to 1992. Prior to that he served as Commissioner in Singapore, High Commissioner in Ghana, Ambassador to the Philippines, Ambassador to Indonesia, Deputy to the High Commissioner in Malaysia, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1982-1988), and as a member of the Advisory Panel for the first Government White Paper on Foreign and Trade Policy (1997). He divides his time between Sydney and Canberra.

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