By Alexander Neill, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Bob Carr’s message was clear at his IISS Fullerton Lecture on Tuesday: Australia is not just within Asia, it is of Asia. Stopping in Singapore as part of a busy tour through Southeast Asia (his next stop would be Naypyidaw in Myanmar), he noted that Australia was ‘drawing ever closer to Asia’.

In his talk, Carr praised the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in regional decision-making, and said Australia welcomed Asia’s economic and social transformation, but warned that the positive momentum could be disturbed by financial pitfalls, social unrest and territorial conflict. Invoking Australia’s history, he explained that in its earlier days it had naturally looked towards the Anglosphere for guidance and inspiration, and while this legacy remains, Australia’s growing Asian credentials are equally and perhaps, in the long-term, more significant.

Carr highlighted not only Australia’s recent white paper ‘Australia in the Asian Century’, published in October 2012, but also Lee Kuan Yew’s congratulations to former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, almost 40 years ago, on the abandonment of the ‘White Australia’ policy. ‘Australia now’, he said,  is ‘globally engaged, focused on Asia, enmeshed in the forums of the region, self-consciously multicultural, confident of its place in our neighbourhood, and a free trader.’

Carr is right to assert that the image of Australia as a remote Anglo-Saxon coastal strip in the Indo-Pacific has been outdated for decades. As New South Wales’ longest-serving premier, Carr had observed the increasing numbers of students from India, China and Vietnam who were outperforming their European counterparts in the educational system. Australia’s ethnically Asian minority is expanding: 1.7 million Australians were born in Asia, not to mention the significant proportion of second-generation Asian-Australians.

Carr stressed the ‘strategic centrality’ of ASEAN to the wider Asia-Pacific region, although some in the audience noted that the ASEAN whole is not currently greater than the sum of its parts.

He identified three areas challenging the ‘happy narrative’ in the region: what he described as ‘old fashioned’ territorial disputes, ethno-religious tension and the ‘middle-income trap’.

Carr called for good stewardship during the forthcoming ASEAN summit in Brunei in October and hoped that China would play a supportive role in agreeing a code of conduct for territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Describing disturbing extremist trends amongst Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, he underlined the need for ASEAN to play a leading role in supporting democratic transition in the country, and in particular the urgency of the plight of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

He spoke of the dangers of a middle-income trap developing in Southeast Asia, with national economies being cheated of the benefits of market liberalisation and economic reform, and singled out Japan’s economic misfortunes and a recent World Bank report on the need for economic reform in China as examples.

Carr’s lecture and subsequent discussion never strayed far from the Sino–US relationship, particularly the question of Australia’s defence agreements with the United States. When asked directly if Australia would provide military assistance to the United States, should conflict break out over territorial disputes in the South China Sea or Taiwan, Carr prevaricated, suggesting that in the event of a US–China dispute, Australia’s actions would ‘depend on the context and nature of the disagreement’. He added that Australia ‘takes no position’ on any territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Observing that China understands the US–Australia security relationship, Carr also emphasised that the United States has been acquiring knowledge of China since 1784, when the United States broke the monopoly of the East India Company there. Carr asserted that Australia, like Singapore, should not have to choose between China and the United States.

Australia, he said, also benefits from a substantial pool of knowledge and expertise on Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia, and reiterated the government’s intent to make Australia the most ‘Asia-literate’ society in the OECD.

The discussion had a historical resonance, evoking the narrative of Australia’s first years and the path it would take at the turn of the last century, with the backdrop of Japan’s defeat of Russia – with whom Australia was allied – in 1905. Australia aligned itself with the Anglosphere in its first years, but while the strong links to the United Kingdom and the United States remain, today Australia’s links to Asia are no less important.

‘Picking up the phone to Jakarta, Singapore and Tokyo has become the norm, embedded in the way we do diplomacy. As it was decades ago, and still is, with London and Washington.’

Watch the full lecture.

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