If there is a conceptual shift on display in the launch of the development of a white paper on Asia relations, it is from Australia’s firm attachment to the construct of the Asia Pacific towards the “Asian Century”. The country that invented APEC (well, co-invented with Japan) is readjusting the settings.

It was Treasury that put the Asian Century up in lights in the May budget — I noted then the phrase was a pivot point in the opening lines of the Wayne Swan’s speech to parliament. Hence, Dr Ken Henry gets to run the white paper.

The Treasury insight is that the Asian forces are so profound they will change where and how Australians work. In the budget papers you’ll find a section headed “The Asian Century and the changing structure of Australia’s economy“, showing how the needs of China and India are altering the what and where of jobs and investment in Australia.

The Treasury budget papers argue that the Asia shift will have a “profound influence” on Australia’s evolution. And that idea is used in the opening line of the announcement of the white paper on Australia in the Asian Century: “The shift of economic and strategic weight to Asia has never been more rapid or more profound for Australia’s interests than it is now.”

Australia has had these profound moments before. One challenge for Ken Henry will be whether he is as good a seer as Ross Garnaut, who produced “Australia and the Northeast Asia Ascendancy” for the Hawke government in 1989. The report ranks pretty high on the profound effects scale, because of the impact it had on what government actually decided to do in the years that followed.

An unstated benefit of parliamentary committee inquiries is to educate MPs; the stated benefit of a white paper is to educate a government. In this, asking the right questions is a good start, and the white paper has some beauties:

  • The current and likely future course of economic, political and strategic change in Asia, encompassing China, India, the key ASEAN countries as well as Japan and the Republic of Korea.
  • The domestic economic and social opportunities and challenges of the Asian Century for Australia.
  • Opportunities for a significant deepening of our engagement with Asia across the board, including in the economy, science and technology collaboration, clean energy, education, business-to-business and people-to-people links and culture.
  • The political and strategic implications of the Asian Century for Australia.
  • The role of effective economic and political regional and global cooperation.

Henry’s white paper will be a companion document to another significant study being put together by two other Canberra wise owls, Allan Hawke and Ric Smith. Those two former secretaries of the Defence Department are overseeing a review which will provide a “strategic context” for Australia’s next scheduled Defence white paper in 2014. The agenda for the review is all about moving more of Australia’s military to the north and west of the continent and aligning Australia with the US military Posture Review.

Compare the questions posed to Henry with what Hawke and Smith have been asked to cover, noting the Defence brief is about the Asia Pacific, not the Asian Century:

  • The rise of the Asia Pacific as a region of global strategic significance.
  • The rise of the Indian Ocean rim as a region of global strategic significance.
  • The growth of military power projection capabilities of countries in the Asia Pacific.
  • The growing need for the provision of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief following extreme events in the Asia Pacific region.
  • Energy security and security issues associated with expanding offshore resource exploitation in Australia’s North West and Northern approaches.

Not all parts of Canberra talk in exactly the same tongue. Treasury might be comfortable with the Asian Century, but Defence wants the Asia Pacific because it explicitly embraces the US.

In setting sail to the Henry white paper, Julia Gillard delivered far and away the best foreign policy speech she has made as leader. Characteristically for Gillard, she will probably get little credit for the substance offered in her AsiaLink and Asia Society oration. By her now-infamous throwaway that foreign affairs is not her passion, Gillard surrendered one of the commanding assets of any prime minister. The foreign affairs stage is a bully pulpit that faces to a domestic audience as well as beyond the boundaries.

Gillard has downgraded her own ability to educate Australians on the world they face (and education, she says, is her passion). For instance, the policy community has long grappled with the relative decline of Australia’s economic weight compared to Asia, but leaders don’t often put the figures directly and clearly to the voters. Gillard states the change (the decline) in detailed terms.

She put her own language, too, to the China-US conundrum when surveying what she called a vast landscape of change:

“… much is written on the potential tensions inherent in our economic relationship with China and our Alliance ties. I’m a decision-maker, not a commentator, and I don’t by nature reach for the jawbone or the megaphone. But I do say this: the government’s approach comprehends the challenges and risks. Certainly, these relationships will not manage themselves and we are far from complacent about them. But we are far from pessimistic too. Because there is nothing in our alliance relationship with the United States which seeks to contain China, because a growing, successful China is in the interest of every country in the region, including our own and because our national strength, and that of our ally, is respected in the region and the world.”

Mark that as a reasonable description of the Canberra conundrum. Over to Henry to detail some answers.

*This article was first published at The Interpreter