Report Urges Australia to Focus on Relationship with Southeast Asia, Not Just China

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By Vittorio Hernandez | November 30, 2012 10:00 AM EST

Australia's Asian Century white paper released on October 2012 appears to be a misnomer because the bulk of its focus is on one country in the continent - China.

An AsiaLink report released on Thursday urged the Australian government to shift its attention to a subregion in the area in arriving at policymaking decisions. Titled Southeast Asia as "The Third Way," the paper suggested that Canberra's economic and strategic interest would be best served by refocusing on Southeast Asia which is a natural fit for Australia more than any other part of Asia.

"First of all, we've really got experience in South-East Asia, it's that part of the Asian region that's closest to us. It's that part that we've really done the most in, going right back to the creation of the nation states in the South-East Asian region," Radio Australia quoted Australian National University Professor Tony Milner, the lead author of the report and AsiaLink's international director.

Whether the government would respond to the challenge or stick to the white paper's emphasis on China, Mr Milner said that critical to the success of Canberra's strategy to benefit from the Asian century is changing attitudes within Australia such as having more Aussies study in Asia.

"Despite the demographic changes in this country, we're largely a western country, with western institutions, and that's how we're perceived in the region," he pointed out.

The release of the AsiaLink report, timed with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, supported Mr Milner's proposal for more emphasis on the subregion made up of 10 nations.

Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the ASEAN, pointed out that the member-nations collectively are starting to shine as economic growth of the area outpaces the rest of the world, with even the U.S. and China acknowledging the value of Southeast Asia's waterways.

Even members of the ASEAN, particularly Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, along with China, are disputing parts of the South China Sea because of the potential resources buried underneath its waters.

Another report by the United Overseas Bank of Singapore stated that the expected 74 per cent growth in the global economy to $109 trillion by 2020 from $63 trillion in 2010 would be largely fueled by Asian trade flows.

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