Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia, Singapore and Kuwait and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Gallen.
Those of us in Europe who follow Australian policy know perfectly well that (a) the Asia Pacific is the strategic story of our time and that (b) Australia cannot but orient its policy accordingly.
I see two major achievements of the Asian Century White Paper: first, its clear and positive embrace of the region: 'Asia will grow and Australia with it'; and second, using this view as a launching pad for an ambitious national blueprint.
I wish we had such a clear perspective for the future over here. Europe's lack of a bit of Zukunftsgläubigkeit (the shining city on hill thing) is one of its major problems. From all I remember, and continue to see, Australia does not suffer from this particular European ill.
The White Paper sets out the need to balance old alliances and build new ones. The sentence, 'We accept that China's military growth is a natural, legitimate outcome of its growing economy and broadening interests' is as sweeping an acceptance as could be in the face of current armament efforts by Beijing. But this is balanced by a phrase later in the paper that 'We consider that a strong and consistent US presence will be as important...as in the past.' Could this government, any Australian government really, have said anything substantially different?
Would there have been any 'voices from the region' not endorsing a balance? Not from India, not from Vietnam but neither from Indonesia; the basics haven't changed regardless of an eventual transformation from the old 'Pax Americana' to a new 'Pax Pacifica'; the one thing they want less than the a heavy US footprint in the Asia Pacific is none at all.
Some Australian experts have said the White Paper didn't go far enough: according to Dr John Blaxman the Australian Government and, especially, the people, haven't understood a thing about saving face and other allegedly typical Asian traits. Sam Bateman, former Australian Naval Commodore, writes from Singapore that the Asian perception of Australia is still anchored around the deputy sheriff role and thus the White Paper should have listened 'to more voices in the region itself rather than whole-heartedly endorsing US perspectives and initiatives'.
After 15 years in the Asian region, including four years in Australia, I would say to Dr Blaxman that just as there are drunken Aussies in Bali (and, incidentally, loutish Swiss in Pattaya) there is ignorance, prejudice and worse against Westerners in the emerging part of the Asia Pacific and especially in China.
My personal experience is, the more one engages with Asians (if there is such a thing at all) on a courteous but direct and personal level, the better. As I teach my students, who typically come from all over the world including the Asia Pacific, it is a good thing to know the language when you do business in a foreign country but sometimes in the Asia Pacific it is even better not to know it, or at least not too well, as language, certainly Mandarin, can be a delicate domain reservé of natives.
Photo by Flickr user square(art).