Archive Article: Australia’s Search For A Regional Identity. 7th Nov 03.
December 27, 2008

How does Australia relate to Asia? This has been a standard theme in Australian politics for a long time – and there still seems to be no clear answer. I have just been reading an excellent book that sets out clearly the background to this issue.

Rawdon Dalrymple is a former senior diplomat and a member of staff at Sydney University. He knows Australian foreign policy from the inside. He has written “Continental Drift: Australia’s Search for a Regional Identity“. This book is different from other books on Australia’s foreign and defence policy because of its written from an insider’s point of view and with an interesting blend of “traditional” foreign policy concerns (military forces, alliances, etc) with the increasingly important economic concerns.

For example, much has been made of Australia’s military alliance with the United States (which is an example of traditional foreign policy). But trade is becoming increasingly important and here Australian-US relations are not nearly so smooth. Australian farmers – one of the least “protected” set of farmers in the world in terms of agricultural subsidies – are up against American farmers, who enjoy a great deal of “protection” from their government. (One of my favourite statistics is that movie actor John Wayne did almost as well financially some years from his tobacco-growing land – where the US government paid him not to grow tobacco as a way of keeping up prices – as he did from his movies).

Dalrymple was based in Washington DC and so he knows how difficult it is for Australian producers to enter the US market. He recalls that in the case of sugar, for example, it was made clear that the domestic price could not be lowered (by the import of Australian sugar) because the growers in the south Texas constituency of the Agriculture Committee Chairperson could not survive on less.

Australia has been gradually expanding its economic ties with the Asian markets. They are growing and promise greater opportunities. It was an achievement of the Menzies era that the Australian government – at a time when there was still so much residual antipathy towards Japan – could improve trade relations with that country. Now many of the world’s growing economies are throughout East Asia. Australia’s geographical location – instead of being a concern for vulnerability and isolation from Britain and the US – now places it in the region of the most vibrant growing economies for the 21st century.

This means that Australia has many new opportunities for exports. It is not simply a matter of selling food and raw materials (though Australia is doing well). For example, for the past two decades, the Australian government has encouraged the “export of education”, that is, encouraging Australian educational institutions to recruit students from overseas.

The path has not been smooth. Again, Dalrymple’s book is worth reading because he sets out some of the problems that have been encountered. Some Australian politicians, for example, have antagonized Asian opinions.

But the fact is Australia has to improve its links with Asian countries, be they economic or social or political. This book is a very useful guide to understanding the complexities of the problems involved.

Broadcast Friday 7th November 2003 on Radio 2GB’s “Brian Wilshire Programme” at 9pm