Sunday, September 9, 2012

Australia’s destiny in the Asian Century (Part 2 of 2)

However, there are assets that Australia could take for granted too easily. As a Western power, Australia could more easily establish good relations with its Asian neighbors when Western power was globally dominant. It always helps to be a member of the most successful club in the world.

Hence, Australia’s close links with London initially and Washington DC subsequently were seen to be an asset rather than a liability in the region.

It also helped that Australia, ASEAN, China and the West were on the same side throughout the Cold War from roughly 1950 to 1990. However, the Cold War has long ended.

The new major geopolitical contest will now be, in one way or another, between America and China. Hence, simultaneously, Australia will soon have to make painful choices on both the cultural and geopolitical fronts.

The time has therefore come for Australia to engage in some hard-headed and tough-minded questioning about its security and foreign policies in the coming decades. I cannot emphasize enough that continuing on auto-pilot is not
an option.

As a friend of Australia, I would like to urge it to wake up sooner to the new realities of our world. The earlier Australia makes the adjustments, the less painful they will be.

No one can predict the future, even if we can make reasonable judgments about likely long-term trends. All kinds of geopolitical scenarios could emerge. I suggest some possible geopolitical challenges that could emerge: the Sino-American, the Sino-Indian and the tension between Islam and the West.

Each of these three geopolitical fault lines would pose real challenges to Australia. All would require Australia to make adjustments.

Australia has been blessed with an unexpected but valuable geopolitical buffer: ASEAN. For all its flaws and defects, ASEAN has enhanced Australian security by keeping Southeast Asia at peace (with no refugee spillover onto an empty continent), keeping Asian powers (like China and India) at arms’ length and increasing multilateral webs of cooperation which have created greater geopolitical stability.

One of the biggest geopolitical mistakes Australia made in recent decades was to take ASEAN’s geopolitical success for granted. Even worse, Australia has, from time to time, tried to undermine or bypass ASEAN in its diplomatic initiatives. All these moves demonstrate that Australia has not fully understood how its geopolitical destiny is going to evolve.

One fundamental flaw in Australia’s geopolitical thinking arises from a complacent assumption that Australia will always remain a “middle power” in global rankings. Australia’s inclusion in the G20 has contributed to the illusion that Australia will always remain a middle power.

Few Australians are aware that Australia was only included in the G20 because of relative GNP calculations made by Larry Summers and Paul Martin in 1999. That was when Western power was still at its peak.

As several Asian and other emerging powers grow in economic strength, Australia’s position in the global order will slip slowly and steadily. Soon Australia will no longer be perceived as a middle power.

In my new book, The Great Convergence, I propose a new 7-7-7 formula for reforming the UN Security Council. There will be seven permanent members, seven semi-permanent members taken from the list of the 28 next-most powerful countries in the world, and seven elected members.

To give equal weight to “democratic representation” and “economic weight”, a country’s place in the global ranking is based on its average share of global population and global GNP.

Annex A provides a ranking of the 193 UN member states and the EU. As UN seats are distributed according to a formula for regional representation, Australia does not earn a place among the middle powers in the “Western Europe and Others Group” (WEOG) that it belongs to.

Thus one painful decision that Australia will have to make is when it will leave the “Western Europe and Others Group” (WEOG) in all UN bodies. Australia’s geographical and geopolitical destiny is in Asia. Its participation in the WEOG is the result of a historical anachronism. How much longer will Australia cling on to a historical anachronism?

The unavoidable conclusion, Australia (and New Zealand) have no choice but to move closer to ASEAN. A new “Community of 12”, including the 10 ASEAN countries, Australia and New Zealand, represents the natural geopolitical destiny of Australia. Paul Keating tried to steer Australia in that direction during his Prime Ministership from 1991
to 1996.

Sadly, subsequent Australian Prime Ministers have failed to do so. Many precious geopolitical opportunities were wasted as Australia returned to its traditional historical direction of focusing on the West. More years will be wasted if Australia fails to engage in new thinking.

Kishore Mahbubani is an excerpt from a paper recently submitted at a seminar in Canberra, Australia. The writer, dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, is a former Singapore permanent representative to the United Nations.

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