The announcement by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, that she has appointed the former Treasury Secretary, Dr Ken Henry, to produce a White Paper titled, Australia in the Asian Century, is unusual, from a number of perspectives.
A White Paper in Australia is an official statement of policy by the national government. However, Dr Henry’s paper will be a discussion document, not an official statement of policy.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, whose portfolio is clearly central to the production of the White Paper, was absent from the forum where the announcement took place. While the secretary of his department was present for the PM’s announcement, it is strange that Mr Rudd was not present, nor does his web site contain any reference to the White Paper, suggesting that he was excluded from the process.
Equally strange was the choice of Ken Henry to produce the White Paper. Whatever his credentials as an economist — his 10-year period as Treasury Secretary speaks for itself — Dr Henry has never shown any interest in foreign and defence policy, nor in the strategic balance, all of which are central considerations to a White Paper devoted to Australia’s future in Asia.
If an inquiry into Australia’s relations with Asia were warranted, it should at least have been conducted by someone with particular expertise in this part of the world. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) itself has many people well qualified for such a task.
Alternatively, there are many in the private sector, in business, in the defence forces, in think-tanks and in academia, with many years’ experience living in and working with governments and businesses in Asian countries.
Equally unusual is the fact that White Papers in Australia are normally the product of government, not policy advisers.
For example, defence White Papers are the product of the Defence Department. A counter-terrorism White Paper in 2010 was released by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. An earlier White Paper, Transnational Terrorism, was announced by the former Prime Minister, John Howard, in early 2004, and released by his Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, several months later.
It is therefore utterly untrue to say, “This will be a thorough and traditional White Paper process”, as claimed by the Prime Minister.
In her speech, which included the announcement of the White Paper, Ms Gillard focused her attention on the economic growth in China, in particular, in terms which equated economic growth to positive political outcomes for Australia.
Her speech mentioned China 17 times, India seven times, Japan four times, Indonesia three times, and South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan just once, although they are among Australia’s major trading partners in Asia. Other Asian nations, including Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran and East Timor, did not rate a mention.
The Prime Minister’s speech was filled with hype such as: “The Asian century has begun and my Government is leading Australia through its challenges and towards its opportunities now.”
It is interesting to contrast the Prime Minister’s gushing rhetoric with the measured comments made a few days later by Japan’s ambassador in Australia, Mr Shigekazu Sato, to the National Security Institute in Canberra.
Japan’s location puts it in an ideal position to follow closely events in China, and to understand their significance.
Ambassador Sato welcomed China’s economic development, but voiced concerns about its strategic intentions, evident in its growing military strength.
He said: “The rapid expansion of China’s military forces, its acquisition of power-projection technologies, and an insufficient degree of transparency have all contributed to a sense of unease within the region regarding China’s intentions.
“Differences in values, rules and interests mean that there are always risks of misunderstandings, miscalculations, distrust and confrontations.”
He said that Japan’s greatest security issue was managing its relationship with China, and called for a deeper trilateral relationship between three great democracies — the United States, Australia and Japan — to maintain the strategic balance in Asia.
This realism was totally absent from Julia Gillard’s announcement of the new Asia inquiry.
The foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, contrasted the government’s claimed concern for developing regional relations with the lack of action by the Federal Government around issues such as the study of Asian languages in schools, Australia’s low level of diplomatic representation across Asia, and its contradictory policies on uranium sales to China and India.
There is a need for improving Australia’s relations with the Asia-Pacific region, but the Prime Minister’s White Paper is an exercise in self-promotion and self-deception which may well have the opposite effect.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.