Location, location, location - Page 7
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Michael Wesley
INCREASINGLY, WHAT SEEMS TO HOLD these vast societies together and orient them in a common direction is an idea: the shared conviction among the billion-plus population of each country that China and India are returning to a place in the front rank of nations. Imbuing the national conversation of each seems to be a growing consciousness of their status as a civilisation that was once one of the world's centres of gravity and, after a period of Western ascendancy, will be again. One feels it in the revival of interest in Confucianism, Qing dynasty history and the classics of Chinese literature in China; and in the huge popularity of movie and comic book renditions of stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata in India. It is this shared hunger for development and prestige that will likely keep both giants on the upward trend – and their rise will increasingly call forth new centres of power in Asia. Already, China's rise is causing Japan to change its strategic shape, while Iranian society's awareness of its ancient greatness is at least one factor explaining its push for nuclear status and greater regional influence.
As important as the economic figures are the psychological shifts they herald. The idea of their rise has made China and India intensely pragmatic about their pursuit of development. Officials, business people and engineers from both countries have become eager collectors of techniques that can be adopted or adapted to further their particular goals. Western aid officials, for example, are increasingly convinced that China still accepts foreign aid not because it needs the money, but because it wants to learn the governance, management or engineering techniques that are offered with the aid. However, both countries have the self-confidence that allows them to reject the full Western development models that are often foisted on developing states. They are interested in what works, rather than in intellectually elegant, internally coherent frameworks. Beijing increasingly advocates the principle in its own foreign aid that each country's development strategy must be based on its unique national circumstances. It is a model of pragmatic development that increasingly interests China's South-East Asian neighbours, a trend that is slowly sidelining reams of Western development expertise. China and the South-East Asian economies have learned well the lessons of the Asian crisis: they are building up currency reserves, promptly retiring debt and taking a range of other measures against currency shocks, leaving the International Monetary Fund in particular increasingly marginalised.
The new pragmatism explains the non-resurgence of the Asian values discourse after the Asian financial crisis. The new practicality in the region has little time for grand unifying or justifying schemes of any sort; there is little appetite to contest Western hubris about the superiority of its way of doing things. And the pre-Asian crisis assertions of a superior, Confucian/collectivist modernity as the cause of Asia's success would fit less and less well with the changes occurring in Asian societies.
Globalisation is an economic and social order that has trade and profit at its heart. As a result, the communal nature of many traditional Asian societies is being eroded, and the role of the individual (and the family) elevated. This has been occurring in the West, but over a longer period. Increasingly, the desire to connect and belong is satisfied by consumption. Belonging and authenticity is for sale in vast shopping malls throughout Asia, just as it is in Australia, the USA and Europe. An Asian obsession with Western designer brands is now accompanied by something more unique. An explosion in popular cultures, infusing Western pop-culture forms with local Asian cultural forms, has been the result. Chinese rap artists return to centuries-old forms of ‘talking music' for inspiration; bhangra, a funked-up version of Punjabi folk music, has taken off in Asian and Western nightclubs; Japanese teen love songs top the charts across Asia.
There is much to lament about such cultural change: it is harder and harder, for example, to find the distinctive, authentic street food that once made Singapore so exotic now that the use of pre-packaged spices is widespread. But there are important shifts in confidence too. The surging Korean cinema industry is now a model of innovation and dynamism for Asian and Western filmmakers, and Hollywood is buying up the remake rights to dozens of Korean films. There is more and more evidence that Asian pop culture is profoundly influencing Western pop culture as Western audiences grow increasingly tired of remakes, sampling and constant nostalgic cycles. Increasingly, it is in Asia that the latest developments in consumer technologies appear; Western travellers return marvelling at what they've seen in the size and design of must-have items.
WHILE ALL OF THIS EPOCHAL CHANGE has been occurring in our region, we've stopped listening, distracted by pointless debates about ourselves and who we are. The Asian financial crisis, the East Timor chaos, the terrorism, the boat people, settled Australian society back into a complacency about the region, and the absence of any pressing imperative in Australia to watch or come to terms with its region. The imperative became about trying to manage the region's unfortunate impacts on us – a strikingly familiar theme through our history.
The result of these ongoing changes will be a profound alteration of Australia's international environment. The coming decades will see the rise of a very different international order from that which is familiar to us today. For the first time in five hundred years, countries neither Western nor allied with the West will play a major role in shaping international institutions and diplomatic norms. The authoritative sources of norms and practices in the international system will become much more heterogeneous. The great powers will have fewer normative goals in common, and agreement on international order will coalesce around much lower common denominators: sovereignty, strict limits on the use of force, the sanctity of treaties. The heady days of the ‘responsibility to protect' human rights or other liberal democratic values will be a thing of the past. There is little sign that Asia's democratic great powers have the same evangelical zeal as their Western counterparts.
The passing of the centuries-long era in which the rules, languages and institutions of global order were set exclusively by Western countries will have profound implications for Australia. Canberra's diplomats have always enjoyed the advantage of being able to operate internationally in a culturally familiar environment; it is their non-Western counterparts who have had to learn less familiar ways of operating. And Australia will see its international significance decline as the West becomes less significant in the world.
Australia also stands to lose another advantage in international relations: its ability to operate effectively within international institutions that matter. The rise of non-Western great powers will also lead to the declining effectiveness of global institutions. The past half-century has shown us how poorly able to reform their structures of influence international institutions are. They tend to preserve the power structures and deals that existed at the time of their founding; and privileged members, especially powers on the wane, are reluctant to concede any of the influence they possess. It is also very difficult to disestablish institutions, because to do so is to threaten the sunk costs involved in their establishment, to call into question the ideals around which they were formed, and to risk an unravelling of the international agreements they uphold. So the answer has simply been to build new institutions around new power or interest configurations. These start off as ad hoc meetings, but slowly acquire the accoutrements of regularity and permanence. In the process the international stage becomes increasingly cluttered, more and more diplomatic resources are sucked up into servicing institutions, and less and less diplomacy of importance is conducted through them.