South-east tigers prove far from extinct

In a lot of minds, the ''Asian Century'' we may now be facing is conflated with a ''Chinese Century'' - such is China's size and growth pathway despite its building demographic, environmental and perhaps political headwinds.

In a lot of minds, the ''Asian Century'' we may now be facing is conflated with a ''Chinese Century'' - such is China's size and growth pathway despite its building demographic, environmental and perhaps political headwinds.

In a lot of minds, the ''Asian Century'' we may now be facing is conflated with a ''Chinese Century'' - such is China's size and growth pathway despite its building demographic, environmental and perhaps political headwinds.

With Europe falling apart under its ''internal contradictions'', a Western cheer squad is hoping India can be the tortoise that crawls ahead of the Chinese hare, though India's politicians seem to be doing their best to prevent this happening.

But quite remarkably, a third big centre of power is coming to the fore in the region, one that could truly make this an Asian century, not just a China story. South-east Asia is back, after a 15-year retirement to the benches following the pricking of its many bubbles in the 1997 regional financial crisis.

It may be time to bring out those old batik shirts and send them down to the laundry for a wash and press.

The 1997 crisis ended talk of the Asian ''tiger'' economies, and attention soon focused on the sustained high growth of China, and the rising tempo of the Indian economy. South-east Asia seemed destined to prosper as slave economies feeding materials and components to China.

But that is now changing as south-east Asia's potential as a self-sustaining market is more widely appreciated. With 600 million people and combined gross domestic products totalling $US1.8 trillion, it would rank as the ninth or 10th biggest economy in the world.

It's not a combined economy of course, though it works away at making itself into a free trade area. But Indonesia alone, with a population of 240 million likely to stabilise around 400 million later this century, and an economy edging close in size to Australia's (already larger by the purchasing power parity yardstick), will be a very big market on its own.

The region is also coming out of the strategic torpor that resulted from digesting so many varied political systems into its main grouping, the Association of South-east Asian Nations.

At a recent gathering in Rangoon, an official from one of its 10 member countries bemoaned the fact that ASEAN membership involved officials attending ''600 meetings a year''. Bound by a code of ''non-interference'' in each other's affairs, the group was notable for its ineffectuality on the region's disputes and conflicts.

That is swiftly changing as a new generation of better-educated, more worldly politicians and officials takes over from older figures hiding their uncertainties behind protocols and ''cultural norms''. As before, the largest member, Indonesia, is still setting the pace. But instead of that being a comfort to the group's authoritarian member nations, it's an unsettling example of transition to contested elections and open debate.

As noted over recent months, several of the other countries are moving into political transitions. Malaysia and Singapore are seeing a weakening of the one-party dominance of their politics and media that's prevailed for the last 60 years. Thailand is approaching the passing of its revered king. Burma has just made a big step towards democracy.

Even the Philippines, the joker in the pack, may at last be finding a proper role for its many educated, talented and English-speaking people, instead of sending them abroad for menial jobs in rich countries. It has recently overtaken India as the biggest call-centre host. Australian banks and companies are now sending hundreds of back office jobs to Manila.

As well as these internal dynamics, the big external factor encouraging the south-east Asians to step up to the plate in strategic issues is the rise of China and the pressure this is putting on its neighbours to the south.

Oil exploration and fishing in the overlapping claimed economic zones of the South China Sea, damming of the rivers flowing into south-east Asia, cross-border migration, people trafficking, weight of investment and trade money, and projected military capability are all making the south-east Asians fearful of being turned into vassal states (as some were in past eras).

The re-emergence of south-east Asia is something that could work well for Australia.

We are already deeply connected on the economic side, with $64 billion in two-way merchandise trade in 2010-11 and $17 billion in services. Our diplomats would argue we haven't ever dropped the ball, and remain closely informed and influential in the region's affairs.

But the region has lost the central importance we gave it two or three decades back. As bilateral frictions with south-east Asia have diminished, strategic and business focus has shifted to the two Asian giants. Foreign correspondent friends don't say, as they used to, they always go to the Australian embassy first to find out what's really going on. Interest in learning the Indonesian, Thai, or Vietnamese languages has fallen away. A friend in Canberra who wants to learn Burmese is struggling to find a teacher.

Still, Australian business and institutions have a substantial bank of expertise and familiarity with south-east Asia, that could be turned towards profitable partnerships in addressing the region's urbanisation, infrastructure and environmental challenges.

On our political front, it looks like the Coalition will make a supposed ''neglect'' of Indonesia and other ''old friends'' in the region a theme of its pitch for government. We've had similar rediscoveries of neglected relationships before, notably every few years with India, that soon lapse once in office.

The Coalition, a bit more than Labor, walks into south-east Asia with two bits of baggage: a closeness to the US, which makes us look a satellite, and an obsession about Muslim asylum seekers, which to Asians looks like we still haven't completely shaken off White Australia.

Conservatives often dismiss this kind of criticism, pointing to the region's own racial antipathies and claiming our influence with Washington is a plus in Asia. They'd be well advised to slip back into the bipartisan narrative of an Australia steadily becoming a normal partner in in the region. Even John Howard found signing the ASEAN treaty of friendship and non-aggression not so bad after all.

On second thoughts, about those batik shirts ? like flares, they can be so 1970s, if not chosen well.

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