Foreign policy tragics rejoiced last evening when their pet issues received a detailed hour-long airing on the ABC's flagship political debate program, Q&A. At one point, it got so wonkish that host Tony Jones had to gently remind one of his panelists, former foreign minister Bob Carr, that the audience may not actually know what China's 'nine-dashed line' is.
For policy specialists like me, the program was a reminder of how difficult it is to communicate to a broad audience the significance of the Asian century for Australia's future. Among the foreign policy community, the shift of wealth and power to the Asian region, particularly China, is treated (rightly) as the most important thing to happen to Australia's foreign policy since at least the collapse of Soviet-led communism. The political class has not always followed this lead — for them, Islamic radicalism has, since 9/11, been a more urgent priority.
And the public? Well, Lowy Institute polling suggests the public is well aware of China's growing influence on our economic well-being. In fact, they probably overstate it — in 2013, 76% of those polled said China 'was the most important economy to Australia'. Our polling also suggests that Australians are aware of the risks of China's rise: in the 2015 poll, 39% China 'will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years'.
But too often in the public debate, the risks of China's rise are framed as physical risks to Australian territory. There was an air of this in the tweets that were put on screen during last night's show, and on the odd occasion that this subject comes up in my conversations with non-specialists, I am sometimes asked 'What, so are they going to invade us?'. The question is always put with a tone of disbelief, and I reinforce this by saying that invasion is not the issue. But then I am asked: so what is the issue?
At that point, I give an answer similar to the one Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove gave on Q&A last night, when he said that Australia had an interest in preserving the rules-based order in our region. That's true; the rules-based order is a precious thing, and Australia benefits from its preservation in numerous ways. But given that this order is so difficult to define and that it changes mostly by degree (though sometimes all at once, when wars are won and lost), it can be a difficult principle on which to persuade people.
I've pointed out before that it can be difficult to connect the once-in-a-century shift of global power to Asia to the way Australians live their daily lives. So it was disappointing that last night's Q&A didn't get to the 'larger Australia' theme in Michael Fullilove's Boyer Lectures. Because this is the point at which the sometimes esoteric discussion of power balancing, the rules-based order and so on aligns in a very specific way with how Australia is governed and how Australians live their lives.
The polling suggests that Australians do recognise the rewards and risks of Asia's rise, but it's not clear that we as a nation are prepared to do very much about it. Michael Fullilove's Boyer Lectures call for an expanded sense of Australia's place in the world, a bigger defence force and possibly a much larger population, all so that we can meet the challenge of being in the engine room of world politics rather than on its periphery, as we were in the Cold War. I would dearly love to know if Australians share that sense of ambition.
Photo courtesy of the ABC.