Today I shall rant about an article I read in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Peter Hartcher reckons poor old Australia, strong, brave, dependable Australia, has inherited a new empire of failed states who need our paternalism.
I acknowledge the concerns of some about an ‘arc of instability’ to our north; although this isn’t the best term, and it’s a bit condescending to say to our neighbours “we expect you to fail”, it is true that there are lots of governments in trouble on the islands around us. But that’s a far cry from going all nationalist and painting Australia as the shining knight, coming to the rescue of the poor, uncivilised Pacific island barbarians who need to be saved from themselves. (And yet, Hartcher reckons he’s describing a “contrast to … traditional colonialism”!)
Better yet, he claims:
No one else is interested. Not the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations, which has spent 30 years perfecting the art of talk while cultivating abject uselessness in the science of action.
Having spent the last week reading and writing about ASEAN, I can see this for the ridiculous falsehood that it is. First up, repeating the decades-old claim that ASEAN is a useless talk-fest doesn’t help it to become true (as my thesis will argue … but that’s forthcoming). ASEAN has been glacially slow, sure, but it has also mitigated conflicts, promoted free trade, and is showing real signs of developing strong regional institutions. Second, ASEAN nations have a hard enough time dealing with poverty and political stability problems in their own region, so they tend to overlook countries close to them but outside their grasp — places like Bhutan and Nepal as well as the Solomons and PNG.
(That said, I do agree that ASEAN should be more outward-looking than it is; they’ve failed even to officially acknowledge the problems of Pacific island states.)
Hartcher’s article even implies that Australia can claim credit for leading the bail-out of Asian economies during the 1997 financial crisis (newsflash, mate: that belongs to the IMF, stubborn local ministries, and later the Chiang Mai Initiative).
The only redeeming grace is that towards the end, his article hits the nail on the head: it is indeed “a viable economy and effective governance” that are sorely lacking in Timor and the Solomons. Long-term planning is exactly what is needed. But pointing to Australia as a militaristic saviour (or scaremongering about Northeast Asia, as the end of his article does) is not the answer at all.
Also in today’s news: the US Supreme Court finally sees the obvious but our PM continues to show indifference to looking after the interests of Aussie citizens overseas, and Mari Alkatiri wangles his way out of testifying today for what seem to be selfish reasons, but by stalling I suspect he might also give Dili’s angry protestors a chance to calm down.