Editorial: Australia can't afford to deny change

Editorial: Australia can't afford to deny change
Australian Prime Minister-elect, Tony Abbott.

AUSTRALIA - The change of government in Australia to a conservative, home-focused administration will have implications for a nominally Western nation on the edge of a fast-moving Asia. Foremost would be the country's prosperity built on the resource sector. Australia's A$1.5 trillion (S$1.8 trillion) economy is plugged into Asia, which takes two-thirds of its exports.

Related to this is the country's orientation vis-a-vis Asia which has seemed inchoate and often self-serving. Australia grew rich selling ores to China, but is ambivalent about Chinese attempts to buy its farmland. Asian students hungry for degrees keep its many universities going, yet assaults on foreign students by xenophobes are glossed over as aberrations.

A huge sparse country that fears being swamped by asylum seekers coming by boat, it is causing undue tension over the issue with Indonesia, a way-station in the traffic.

The trade and cultural bonds that Australia has developed with China, Japan and South-east Asia require a more equable approach in collaboration and diplomatic interaction.

Policies on security, investment and cultural integration must have more depth than was apparent under Mr Paul Keating's early Asia outreach in the 1990s, and more sensible than the keen devotion Mr John Howard paid to Western interests after the Keating tenure. Mr Howard's offer to Washington to act as America's deputy sheriff in Asia is still recalled with mirth in Asian capitals.

Today, Australia's military cooperation with the United States includes a troop presence in northern Australia. Such links will be part of the balancing act Canberra has to manage, as it strives to gain China's cooperation for its long-term interests.

Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott, who heads a coalition made up of the Liberals and a rural-based party, is, at age 55, one of the globalised generation. An indication of his contemporary impulse is a declared intention to visit Indonesia, China and Japan in his first trips out. Whether the choices are symbolic or substantive will depend on how he is received in those nations and what business his hosts will conduct with him.

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