ASEAN Dreams, Australian Puzzles

My walks to and from the office here in Phnom Penh these few days are punctuated by the noise of sirens and the rush of motor cycle police as yet another cavalcade of dignitaries sweeps past en route to yet more meetings, relegating to the road edges the normal crush of cars, four wheel drives, bikes, motor bikes and tuktuk variants all trying to navigate their days. This is a week of ASEAN meetings and for this year Cambodia chairs the group, a matter of national pride but also a symbolic indicator of what awaits just a year or two away.

The ASEAN aim is that by 2015 there will be an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) with all that entails (http://www.aseansec.org/5187-10.pdf ), and at a time when the formerly much vaunted European model is in almost total meltdown. The 2015 target is a concern for Cambodia with its current annual average income of $US 835 per annum, as against regional standout Singapore where the average is closer to $US 40, 000. Those figures capture the essential challenge in creating an AEC and why much of the discourse around development in Cambodia is focused on 2015 – if the AEC is created, what will happen to the skilled labour force and the educated middle class in a system where intra-regional flow is a lot easier? In short, will countries like Cambodia suffer an exit of skilled people drawn by the prospect of higher income (and, admittedly, higher living costs) in places like Singapore and Malaysia and Thailand?

That prospect for massive change is among the many reasons places like Cambodia are currently receiving a lot of visitors. Chinese President Hu Jintao is the most senior in the current crop (and China is donating massive sums to Cambodia as part of its outreach), but POTUS Obama is scheduled later in the year. Earlier this week Australia’s new Foreign Minister Bob Carr was also in Cambodia for a couple of days as part of a visit to ASEAN which he apparently wanted to place at the top of his “important” list. Carr is still a very much untested unit but this signal is a goodish one, because the AEC issue in many respects highlights the importance of the on-going Ken Henry-led review into Australia’s Asian century.

For many in Australia this review is probably among the many such investigations that are not really necessary – in Australian intellectual circles the road to Asia has been very well travelled for many decades, and the messages coming back for a very long time have been that we need to engage with Asia because that is where the future lies. It has been frustrating to see those messages ignored, the study of Asia in the universities be allowed to weaken in the face of tightened funding regimes, and Australia’s expertise eroded. What has been more galling is the sudden rediscovery of Asia by the politicians, accompanied with a knee-jerk kick at academia for not keeping up to speed! That depiction is an exaggerated one, but not by much.

The Cambodia-AEC story is a significant consideration here, because the framing of the Henry review into “Asia” immediately runs into the very line that intellectuals have held for a long time, that there is not essentially one “Asia” but several “Asias”, and that view prevails even if Lowy Institute Director Michael Wesley thinks otherwise. (http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/author/Michael%20Wesley.aspx ). With its trade and security focus, the Henry group (that has just one academic on it but that has fielded submissions from many more) will by definition look to the stronger players: Singapore (with which Australia is comfortable), Vietnam (more or less so), Malaysia (less so), Thailand (reasonably so) and then the rest fall into a more awkward basket, especially Cambodia, Lao and Myanmar.

This immediately highlights a danger for Australia: an undue focus on trade and profit will jeopardise a longer term, more productive platform in Asia, as demonstrated by the India case. Official Australia has had an uneasy relationship with India, while unofficial Australia has embraced the place rather more, and now the rising economic status of India has made it a natural target for Australia. In all of that, the Indian reaction to Australia’s new and rather sudden interest has been cooler than anticipated, it might be said, and to the confusion of some in the Australian government.

The answer is simple: India like all other “Asian” players is looking for a partnership based on respect and long term commitment, and that is something Australia has had difficulty in fashioning for a very long time. In many Asian settings we have come to be regarded as short term opportunists rather than long term colleagues, and that is a sentiment that the Henry Review and whatever policy directives flow from it will need to deal with head-on and quickly.

The fact that Carr came to Cambodia is a start, but in this strategic country (think of its borders and neighbours) a very long term commitment from Australia will be necessary, and not just in the form of handing a little more cash to the beleaguered Khmer Rouge Tribunal as happened a few days ago. The need is for a long term systemic improvement change in key areas of Australian expertise, like mining and agriculture. That sort of development will help places like Cambodia contemplate eventualities like the AEC with far more confidence and that, in turn, will position Australia far more positively in the medium to long term. Only then will Australia truly be part of an Asian Century.

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