Much has been written about the centre of the world’s economic gravity shifting to our region, but no strong narrative about our place in the Asian Century has yet engaged Australians. A new debate about the republic will help, because any narrative for the Asian Century needs to be about us, our confidence in Australia, its national values, character and spirit. We can play to these strengths and take advantage of our unique position in the world. The Asian Century can be the century in which Australia comes of age.
There is an economic imperative for us to stop looking at the world through the lens of the past and to work out how to negotiate Australia’s national interest in a different future. Our economy is more tied to China than it has been to any economy since its old imperial links to Britain early in the last century, and more integrated with other Asian economies than most in the region. But our Asian engagement has been narrowly based, primarily in the resources sector. It has not touched most people in the suburbs where we live. We haven’t grasped that Asia is a big part of our future.
Digging things out of the ground and selling them overseas might make a buck while emerging economies are growing, but what happens when growth falters? To secure us from future boom bust shocks, we need much more diversified links (beyond mining) with the major economies of the region. That means people working in all kinds of industries need to be making plans to do business with Asia, if they are not already. We need our children to be learning much more about Asia and the languages of the region.
All of this becomes common sense if we share a narrative about Australian national interest and national challenges in this part of the world. But our media, culture and education are so dominated by UK and American influences that we risk seeing Asia through their eyes rather than our own national interest. For our traditional friends, Asia is either distant or even posed as a threat.
Australia is in a completely different position from either of our traditional friends. For us, Asia is the main game. It is our bread and butter. While our traditional friendships will and should endure, we need a national discussion about our own identity and interests, our hopes and aspirations as a unique nation on the edge of Asia, to develop our own story and to achieve our own safe and prosperous future in the region.
In the absence of any national consensus in Australia about our identity and our place in the world, our trading partners know that their relationships with us are shallow.
Australia will, of course, never dominate in the provision of high value goods and services to Asia in the way that we have been a major supplier of resources. We must, however, build our capacity to be a high value, niche provider across all sectors. We will be much better positioned to so with a strong Brand Australia.
Our national reputation and relationships will become much more important in selling high value goods and services than was ever the case in selling coal and iron ore, which virtually sell themselves.
Amongst the most serious challenges for our political leaders is to lead community discussion about the Australia’s identity in the world in a way that brings us together as a nation and reinforces, rather than undermines, our relationships and reputation in Asia. Yet resolving our national identity and completing our democratic journey towards a republic has been off the agenda. It needs to be right back on the agenda, in this Asian century.
We need a strong and resilient Brand Australia that is confidently democratic, smart and engaged, rather than just happy and complacent and viewed in the region as a fair weather friend with a colonial ambivalence about modern Asia.
Indeed, a new consensus about Australia’s identity would help position us where we should be, as a nation with a unique leadership role to play in regional affairs. We have had our moments of active leadership in regional and global issues, but these have been too narrowly focused on the passions and capabilities of individual foreign ministers or prime ministers. Australia should take its place as a major democracy and major player in the Asia Pacific region, but is held back by the lack of consensus about our readiness to present ourselves to the world as fully independent and comfortable about our place in the world of this century.
While Australia’s ties to the region remain narrowly based on transactional resources trade and an incomplete national identity, we will be in for shocks, booms, busts and misunderstandings. An Australia that is confident about its national values, identity and character, projecting a coherent and compelling brand, will be better placed to build long term, strategic engagement with Asia.
As Australia engages in a discussion about the Asian Century, it needs to take the final step on its national journey. It is time to turn our pride into sufficient confidence to tell the world that we stand on our own two feet. An Australian republic will be more than just a constitutional update, but a template for a nation to secure our identity, prosperity and security in this century, in our part of the world.
David Morris has recently been appointed the new National Director of the Australian Republican Movement.
He was most recently Executive Director, China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, which he helped establish, and Director, Government Relations, during which time he managed a series of high level dialogue meetings for the Australian Government between government, business and academic leaders at Shanghai World Expo. He was previously a diplomat, with postings to Europe, a senior political adviser and senior public servant for the Australian, NSW and Tasmanian Governments. He has managed trade missions for heads of government and ministers and business delegations to China, Japan, India, the US, Malaysia and Europe.