Friday, April 06, 2012

What does "Asia" and the "Asian century" mean?

Waking up early this morning with no deadlines for the rest of the day, I enjoyed the luxury of a relaxed stroll around my part of the blogosphere. There were many things that I could write about as a consequence, some serious, others not so. In the end, my attention was caught by the on-going discussion on the Lowy Institute blog on Australia in the Asian Century. You will find the full series of posts here.

By way of background for international readers, the Australian Government has commissioned a White Paper (The Henry Review) on Australia in the Asian Century to consider the likely economic and strategic changes in the region and what more can be done to position Australia for the Asian Century. The Lowy Institute is attempting to encourage discussion on the issues raised.

In this brief comment, I want to look at just one issue, the importance of definitions.

Over the last few years, I have written a fair bit on the way our mental mud maps and the words we use to express those maps affect thinking.

The world is a complex place. To understand it, we have to simplify, to create patterns. We then attach labels to those patterns, each representing a bundle of thoughts and views. Those labels acquire a life of their own, conditioning subsequent thought and actions. Importantly, the labels act to exclude alternative ways of thinking.  

"Asia" is example of such a label, as is the idea of an "Asian century". You can see the influence at work in this quote from an interview with Bob Carr, Australia's new Foreign minister in The Phnom Penh Post.  

I think our engagement will grow. The Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, has a very cordial view of Australia. I remember one minister saying that Australians may have white skin — but that’s less and less true, as our population has Asianised — but we think like Asians. That’s a very great compliment, because we are working hard to adapt to a century that will be dominated by Asia.

Now I have no idea what this quote actually means. We can see that Hun Sen has a view of Asia and Australia, Bob Carr has a view of Asia and Australia, but beyond that?

Take "we think like Asians". What do Asians actually think? Indeed, what are Asians?

Asia is a useful geographic descriptor, although the boundaries of Asia have varied.

Take, as an example, the use of term subcontinent to describe the Indian peninsular. This recognises that the peninsular is part of Asia, but is also distinct, almost a continent in its own right. Of course, the very idea of continents is an example of another label.

Now if we look at the subcontinent and immediate surrounds, is Afghanistan or Shri Lanka part of Asia? Or, for that matter, Tibet?

The old British centric label of the Far East, a label synonymous with Asia, excluded India. The Indian Empire adjoined, but was distinct from Asia. Japan or China were Asian, India was not. It was a world of its own.

Just at the moment my train reading is Geoffrey Blainey's A very short history of the world. The river civilisations that arose in what is now China and India were very distinct, although there was a flow of ideas. To lump the whole lot now with their very different histories under a single label, Asia, is to mislead.

Power is always expressed in geographic terms.

To Australia with its dependence on sea lanes, the critical geopolitical issues are in fact maritime. This country's world centres on the Pacific and Indian oceans and on the critical sea lanes. This coincides with main national groupings - India with its focus on the Indian ocean and its relationships with adjoining Pakistan and China; North Asia and especially China with their relationships to each other, the Pacific and the US; and the ASEAN countries and especially Indonesia that straddle key sea lanes and provide something of a natural buffer against developments further north.

This is a complex pattern, further complicated by our relationships with the US. Further, it is a pattern over which this country has very little control. Australia may, as our foreign ministers delight in telling us, be a mid range power. However, the words of themselves indicate the limits. We are important enough to be a player, but our role will always be a subsidiary one outside certain limited areas.

Much of the current discussion on Australia in the Asian century centres on economics. Even here we have to be careful about the application of the label Asian, for Asia is not an economic entity.

To amplify this, consider the Sydney Morning Herald piece: How corporate Australia found a niche in India. However Asia may be defined, each Asian country represents a different market place or indeed market places, each with its own complexities. You cannot speak in generalities.

The growing integration between Australia and various Asian countries will continue, bringing their own changes in this country.

Just as major Australian hotels and tour operators once focused on the Japanese market place, now China is the flavour of the month. From congee for breakfast to the inclusion of Chinese language TV stations in room offerings, Australia's hotels are attempting to meet the needs of the growing Chinese visitor marketplace. In doing so, they are not focusing on the generality Asia, but on the specifics of a defined group of customers.

I think that this really captures my point. Rather than focusing on Asia as such, Australia's approach has to be multi-level and nuanced, taking differences into account. This leads to me to doubt the value of the white paper itself beyond a very superficial level. To my mind, there is actually a real risk that it might mislead, translating into generalities that conceal the need to respond to difference.        


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Familiar echoes here of themes you've applied to "indigenous issues" and "New South Wales" as generalities masking enormous variety.

I hope you have a peaceful weekend.


Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, kvd, and thanks. You are right of course. I have also applied the mud maps concept, the idea of mental structures and labels that impede, in discussions on culture, management, public policy, politics and history!

I became really sensitive to all this when I found that my own mind traps had led me astray in ways that I should have been aware of!

Evan said...

Very true I think. I guess some generalities would be - teaching languages spoken in Asia to Australians would help! Encouraging uni students to get to know international students would be a useful foundation for the future.

I can't see the White Paper saying much outside of economics - which I find quite depressing.

Jim Belshaw said...

The international student one is interesting, Evan. You would think that with so many international students now interaction with locals would be easier. In fact, the opposite seems to be true, at least in the mega universities like Sydney or UNSW. There is a sort of crowding out ghetto effect. I am not sure what outreach programs exist, but they don't appear to have much impact.

I have written on the language one. There is very little economic incentive to study foreign languages with so many native speakers now present.

You may well be right on the white paper content.

Rummuser said...

I have given up raising the subject of "the subcontinent" being part of Asia or not in discussions. As recently as yesterday, an American that I spoke to for the first time ever on skype told me that I did not look like the Asians he sees in California. He meant of course the Koreans, Japanese, and the Chinese. And others of Mongoloid appearances.

Now another confusion is being created for whatever reason, called Chindia!

I am laughing and hope that you are too.

Jim Belshaw said...

I am, Ramana. Chindia! What a BRIC!

Jim Belshaw said...

Also see my comment on your facebook comment.