COLUMN: McCarthy, Wesley attack Asian White paper

EVENT HIGHLIGHT: Two of Australia’s most experienced policy thinkers are strongly critical of Julia Gillard’s Asian Century white paper and national security strategy. One of them, John McCarthy, a former ambassador to seven countries, including five in Asia, said the “overall product was “so meddled with politically” that it lost a lot of the good conduct its first draft had.

McCarthy, now national president of the AIIA, compared the paper unfavourably with the document produced by former foreign minister, Gareth Evans, at the end of the Cold War, which he said was “a very good product – I don’t think we’ve seen anything out of government since then”.

He said what was now needed, after the election later this year, was a “hugely thorough appraisal of what is happening and likely to happen over the next ten years in our foreign policy framework….a hard headed and realistic assessment of where our interests lie”.

Michael Wesley, professor of national strategy at the Australian National University, and until recently head of the Lowy Institute, said that

according to the white paper the Asian century, simply means that the centre of production and consumption and all this other stuff has simply moved to Asia.

I’m not so sure I’m ready to concede to the government that the Asian century will be quite so benign as the white paper suggests. If you read the white paper – and I don’t really recommend it – it suggests that the Asian century will be the best of the three for us. That really it will be a continuation of the benign conditions we got under the British century, that got even better under the American century, and that it will be eBen better under the Asian century.

I think that is fundamentally, strategically naive. I won’t go on about the white paper because it is like kicking a lame dog, I don’t know anyone who takes it seriously.

Wesley said that while the British and the Americans had kept the world’s trade routes open, his fear was that important sea routes, particularly in the Indian Ocean and the West Pacific would be subject to disputation, with grave consequences for Australia.

McCarthy and Wesley were talking at a packed AIIA (NSW) meeting in Sydney on Australian foreign policy over the next ten years. They were asked by New South Wales president Colin Chapman to consider whether the white paper was “worth the paper it was printed on”.

McCarthy said one side of the problem was Canberra:

There are few countries in the world where the capital is so isolated from the rest of the community, and you realise that when you come to a city like Sydney. Policy is made in Canberra, they do not consult a huge amount with the capitals or with the states, or with other elements of the the community to the extent that it happens in other comparable countries. There are fourth-generation public servants in Canberra and that tells you a lot.

You can watch the discussion in full here

Commentary prepared by Colin Chapman, President of the AIIA (NSW).

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