The Asian Century is over. Well, the Australia in the Asian Century website has been archived at least. Just shy of a year after Julia Gillard launched the Asian Century White paper, the Abbott government has consigned the concept to history.
"The Australia in the Asian Century website was archived on September 20, 2013.
"Content from the former website is available on the National Library of Australia's Trove web archive" the official website now reads.
A senior spokesperson at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet confirmed last week to Business Spectator that the concept has been dropped. The Asian Century idea “was the former government’s policy and direction”, the spokesperson said, although the government continues to have a “focus on the Asian region” even though the taskforce has been disbanded.
Senator Penny Wong, Shadow Minister for Trade and Investment has called the decision to shut the website as “short sighted and a dangerous signal of the Abbott government’s approach to our region and its opportunities and challenges.”
Julie Bishop is on record as saying that Australian foreign policy under the Coalition government will be ‘less about Geneva, more about Jakarta’. Indeed, the government’s renewed focus on securing free-trade deals with South Korea, Japan and China bears this out to a large extent.
The Abbott government is calling its stripped-back approach to foreign policy 'economic diplomacy'.
With its focus on quiet action, it prioritises economic links over a more holistic approach of cultural engagement that the former government’s Asian Century whitepaper beat the drum for.
"Good governments understand that providing a secure and stable environment for their citizens is their most fundamental task," the Foreign Minister said in her address to the General Assembly at the United Nations last month. "But that task is tied inextricably to the strength of their economy."
China's leaders would recognise the approach: in many ways, it parallels the country’s pragmatic economic advancement under Deng Xiaoping.
"The goal of our foreign policy is a peaceful environment for achieving the four modernisations" Deng Xiaoping proclaimed to the Third Plenum in 1978. "This is a vital matter which conforms to the interests not only of the Chinese people but also of the people in the rest of the world."
The goal of China’s foreign policy wasn’t about a global communist revolution, it was about strengthening the local economy.
Today, proponents of the Coalition approach argue that once stronger economic ties with China are in place, any necessary change in Australia’s thinking will follow.
But is it enough to address economics without cultural awareness, language and education alongside?
Speaking at the Australia China Youth Dialogue recently, former foreign minister Gareth Evans said that the new government’s focus on ‘economic diplomacy’ is an insufficient approach and that in time, “they will learn that life is more complicated than that.”
In the longer term, a shift in mindset will be needed one way or another if we're to boost and broaden our economic engagement with China and the rest of Asia to the full extent possible.
Even though Ken Henry's Asian Century White paper was heavily padded with motherhood statements, it did at least recognise this necessity.
Meanwhile China, for its part, seems to be taking Tony Abbott’s ‘open for business’ approach at face value, pitching China’s high-speed rail construction expertise as an area the two countries could cooperate on – despite Tony Abbott’s preference for roads.
As for China’s longer-term reaction, it remains to be seen how Beijing will feel about the change - though Australian cultural navel-gazing is unlikely to take up too much of the leadership’s attention.
Abbott’s political mentor John Howard said before the election that Abbott would approach foreign policy in a calm and methodical way without any surprises or “pointless symbolism”.
A Global Times op-ed published the day before the election signaled Beijing’s position.
“Abbott has expressed his support for America, but he also emphasises Asia’s importance. If he’s elected, maybe he’ll surprise everyone.”
Maybe the symbolism isn’t so pointless after all – and maybe a few surprises from Abbott are what’s in order.