Lessons from Southeast Asia

Foreign Minister Bob Carr will no doubt be glad to see the end of his gaffe-prone first month in office. But the toughest part of his job is only just beginning. Until now, Australia’s foreign policy has been pretty cut and dried: Find a great and powerful friend and stick with them. Britain had the first go at the job and passed on the baton to the United States. Life was simple.

Now, it’s a lot more complex. The US alliance remains strong, but there are questions about what kind of global role a recession-stricken America can continue to play. The rise of China means the centre of economic gravity along with the bulk of our trade has shifted eastwards.

Our opportunities (and challenges) now lie in our own backyard. And for the first time, we may face a future where our major security ally and our largest trading partner are competing with each another.

To work out how to deal with these challenges, the federal government has commissioned a white paper, Australia in the Asian Century, to be released later this year.

Australia is not alone in dealing with these challenges. Our Southeast Asian neighbours, which thanks both to history and geography fall even more closely within China’s economic and strategic orbit than Australia, face a similar dilemma.

There is debate about whether Asian countries will naturally gravitate towards China as its influence expands, rendering America an increasingly irrelevant power in the region. But so far, in Southeast Asia at least, this has not been the case. Quite the opposite: All Southeast Asian governments are responding to the rise of China by increasing their engagement with the United States.

This weekend, Burmese people will vote in by-elections. Burma is one of the world’s most repressive authoritarian states, yet it appears to be taking small steps towards reform. Burma, which has long been a Chinese client state, is beginning to question the value of Beijing’s growing dominance. Burma no longer wants to be isolated from the West. By inching towards democracy, the Burmese generals are holding out an olive branch to the West: Even they recognise the value of America acting as a counterbalance to China’s growing weight.

All the countries in Southeast Asia have different reasons to welcome America’s presence in their neighbourhood. But all welcome it nonetheless.

Jessica Brown is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies. Her paper Southeast Asia’s American Embrace was released this week.