Penny’s fant-Asia, or even one Wong doesn’t make it right

Labor Senator Penny Wong speaks in the Senate chamber at Parliament House Canberra, Monday, Dec. 9, 2013. The Senate will today vote on the governments proposed deal with the Greens to scrap the debt ceiling. (AAP Image/Stefan Postles) NO ARCHIVING

God only knows what Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Senator Penny Wong actually meant by her recent remarks regarding Australia realigning itself with Asia over the (Trump-led) United States. And I’m saying that as someone who actually likes her and respects her as a politician of talent and stature.

But I get exactly the same reaction whenever someone talks about being closer (or whatever euphemisms and variations you prefer) with Asia:

There is no “Asia”. There is no “Asia-Pacific”. There is no “the region” in any meaningful sense.

Asia is not only the largest continent, but also the most racially, ethnically, culturally, religiously, historically and politically diverse one. This is true even when, as most people, you use “Asia” as a shorthand for the sub-region of south-east and east Asia.

There is no “south-east Asia” or “east Asia” either, in any meaningful sense that would allow a country like Australia, or anyone else, to ally itself, or align, or share interests with.

You could try to re/align yourself with Europe, in a sense of the European Union, which for all the internal diversity of its member states, shares the overarching architecture. But there is no Asian Union, and there won’t be in any short to medium term future I can see. This is neither a dig nor a praise of Asia, merely a statement of the obvious. There are only individual countries, whose lowest common denominators of “shared interests” could at best be summarised as: 1) by and large peace is probably preferable to war, and 2) let’s keep the sea lines open for trade – which are the geopolitical equivalents of “everyone likes funny cat videos”, i.e. they tell as nothing and are pretty useless as guides to behaviour.

Apart from that, there is only the millennia-old history of enmity, continuing distrust, and power balancing. China is different to Japan, which is different to South Korea, which is different to the Philippines, which is different to Vietnam, which is different to Taiwan, which is different to Indonesia, which is different to North Korea, which is different to Malaysia, which is different to Thailand, etc. So which Asia are we realigning ourselves with, and with which Asia do we share more interests with than the United States?

Not only there is no Asia, it’s not even as simple as the “democratic Asia” versus the “authoritarian Asia”. China and Vietnam are both supposedly communist states but they have a long history of conflict and still don’t trust each other; South Korea and Japan are both supposedly pro-American democracies, but there is very little love lost between them and not much more in common today.

If, however, “Asia” is now the shorthand for China, with its biggest population, the biggest economy, and the biggest hegemonic ambitions, then thanks but no thanks. China nowadays might be a happening and exciting place, full of vibrant change and endless possibilities, but it’s still a one-party dictatorship. Sure, it’s a lot more hip than during the Cultural Revolution, and doesn’t kill its own people by the millions (thank God for the small mercies), but there is no democracy, no individual rights and freedoms as commonly understood, and the economic system is pure crony comrade capitalism, under the effective and tight (and corrupt) control of the Party. Its foreign policy is grounded in xenophobic nationalism and in practice confrontational with its neighbours. The country’s got chips on its shoulders the size of its trade surplus with America.

Maybe Penny Wong wants to live under some sort of Pax Sinica; I don’t. Yes, we sell loads of natural resources to China, but that’s pretty much the extent of our common interests with the Middle Kingdom. By all means, let’s be friendly with and nice to China – let’s try to be friendly with and nice to everyone; we are Australia, after all, and that’s what we do best – but let’s not pretend that somehow our future is, or should be, more aligned and in tune with an unpredictable dictatorship than with our traditional allies.