Security and Politics in Europe: What Asian Century?

ImagePRESIDENT’S COLUMN: To an Australian, a few weeks in Europe just now is a little disconcerting.

The first thing you notice is that Europeans are not obsessed with the idea of being in an “Asian Century”. Not only that, but few of them seem to believe in the concept at all.

Many Europeans – most prominently the Germans, the Dutch, the French and the Italians – see China as a rising economic power and a growing market for their luxury products, but they still believe in Europe and the European Union. They are determined to save the Eurozone, despite the doubts expressed by outsiders, particularly the Americans.

It is not that they doubt the rise of China, simply that they don’t talk about it much, except to note that China’s economic growth continues to slow. They pay even less attention to Japan, while India’s growth is regarded as suspect, given weak national government and a ramshackle infrastructure.

In Poland, an open-minded EU member, it was hard – during ten days of meetings with foreign affairs, economics ministry and a range of other top officials and think-tanks – to find anyone with much interest in Asia. The foreign minister was preparing for a visit to China, with shale gas, climate change and trade issues on the agenda, but expectations were not high. There was more interest in the various hiccups in developing shale gas in Australia.

The Chinese were contracted to build a major new freeway in Poland, part-funded by the EU, but did not finish the job, a major embarrassment to both Warsaw and Beijing.

China barely rates a mention in defence strategy. The talk is of Afghanistan and the future of NATO. “Like you, we are paying our dues to the United States”, was a comment I heard several times in Warsaw. And like Australia, they seem prepared to stick it out, but without any conviction of its worthiness.

The concern for the Poles is whether “paying their dues” will ensure that the Americans and/or NATO will defend them. They were shaken when President Barack Obama canned the anti-ballistic missile system that had been planned for Poland, and now put their faith in a new NATO scheme not due for completion for several years (staffed by American personnel).

Whereas Australia debates whether or not American troops and hardware should be deployed on our soil, the Poles are desperate to welcome American soldiers, whom they see as the best deterrent to the man they detest – President Vladimir Putin. The distrust of Russia is a universal talking point.

While some in the Polish foreign ministry pay lip service to the idea of an EU defence initiative, I’m left with the impression that few believe this will ever happen. Off the record, high officials speak of Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative, with scarcely-concealed contempt, as someone who is ignored by the Germans and the French, and treated little better by her home country, Britain.

The anti-British feeling across continental Europe is a strong as I can ever remember, with many giving up on the United Kingdom playing a useful role in Europe. To people who have been traditionally pro-British, like the Poles, there is a sadness that the Cameron government appears to have turned its back on Brussels, and a feeling that this can only cause further harm to the beleaguered economy.

As you might expect, the British are divided about Cameron, who has, it must be said, been a disappointment to many in his own Conservative Party.  Last week, he tried to address this by shuffling his ministerial pack, moving it further towards Thatcherism while trying also to conserve the support of the Liberal Democrats.

He has also managed a Gillard-style U-turn, abandoning his previous election pledge to oppose the construction of a third runway at London’s congested Heathrow airport. (Heathrow is as bad as ever; on my flight into London at 10 pm, it took 40 minutes to find a “gate team” to operate the air bridge to the aircraft. And several of the moving walkways were out of order.)

The Brits – or the ones I met – seem to have no real idea of the mess their country is in. After the wettest summer for 100 years, I found them basking on a brief burst of September sunshine, wrapped in the hubris of Olympics success, and waving Union Jacks and singing their hearts out with “Land of Hope and Glory”. “We don’t need the EU, we have the world”, an old friend said.

As if to press the point the London Daily Telegraph published a long article today

Headed “Time Running out for the Lucky Country”. The writer said the Australian economy is not all it is cracked up to be, but “every cloud has its silver lining because it would make it more affordable to us Poms”.

Leaving aside the obvious schadenfreude, if measured against the utterances of Wayne Swan he is undoubtedly right. But the British are deluding themselves if they think they can flourish outside Europe.

Colin Chapman is the President of the AIIA NSW.

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