Part 1 of this article is here and part 2 is here.
 

Consider a single political-diplomatic start date for the idea of the Asian Century.

It is 1988 and Deng Xiaoping is meeting Rajiv Gandhi. China's leader tells India's Prime Minister: 'The 21st century can only be the Asian Century if India and China combine to make it so.'

It's a powerful vision. Yet Deng's proposition for how the Asian Century might work draws me to an opposing vision in Bill Emmott's book Rivals, which predicts a power struggle between China, India and Japan. Emmott quotes a senior official in India's Ministry of External Affairs: 'The thing you have to understand is that both of us – India and China – think that the future belongs to us. We can't both be right.'

The two quotes encapsulate the biggest question for the Asian Century: how much cooperation will be necessary to counterbalance the inevitable conflicts of interest and intention? 

The India-China dynamic – a troubled history leaning against so much promise – is an excellent reference for pondering Canberra's effort to create a White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century. Note that the century will not merely centre on Asia, but will be Asian. Perhaps this means that decisions as well as the direction – the ownership as well as the onus – will be Asian. This is real if you-name-it-you-own-it stuff.

As an Asian Century unrolls through coming decades, there might well come a time when it is China and India that meet to make the big calls, as Deng prophesied. That is a new world for Australia as much as for everybody else in Asia. Such a thought explains why Australia is a recent convert to the term Asian Century; it has really only blossomed as a defining term for Canberra in the last two years.

By launching a White Paper process 12 months ago on Australia and the Asian Century, Julia Gillard supercharged the concept. Having knocked off the eminently Asia-literate Kevin Rudd, Gillard was reaching for her own Asian colours.

To add a bureaucratic perspective to the process, the fingerprints on the language shift all belong to Treasury, not to Foreign Affairs. It was Treasury that really started using the phrase Asian Century, putting it in the Treasurer's mouth in the budget speech last year and using it to predict internal changes for the Australian economy. And it is not some foreign affairs nerd but the former head of Treasury, Ken Henry, who is running the Asian Century inquiry.

This is not just inside Canberra tea-leaf stuff. When the White Paper was launched, this column argued that, if there was a real conceptual shift on display, it was Australia starting to abandon its firm attachment to the construct of the Asia Pacific. The country that invented APEC (well, co-invented it with Japan) was readjusting the settings. 

Australia and Japan and plenty of others built the Asia Pacific model because it gave an explicit role to the US. It aligned Australia's strategic and economic interests.

To shift from the Asia Pacific Century to the Asian Century is to re-frame the power equation and the hierarchy. All this matters for politics and government, for bureaucracy and the chattering classes. It tells us something of Asia's impact on Canberra's perceptions; call it the power of economic gravity. To be precise, this tells us something about how China is messing with a lot of minds in Canberra, colouring the thinking even if the actions seem all to be directed at a more fervent embrace of the US alliance.

The use of Asian Century phraseology is one point where Australia is diverging from the US, even during the pivot moment. No Asian Century for the Americans. Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaim that we are in the Pacific Century, which builds naturally on the American century we have just emerged from.

As an example of the point, see Hillary's Hawaii speech last November, entitled America's Pacific Century. The thought was given its most emphatic expression by Obama's declaration in his speech to the Australian parliament: 'The United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.' Obama's speech in Canberra was notable, though, for his repeated reference to the Asia Pacific; even for the Americans, the Pacific Century nomenclature might have to stretch a bit.

As the previous column noted, the Australian Defence Department lines up with Obama in its affection for the Asia Pacific as a descriptor that explicitly embraces the US.

The Defence Minister's Lowy speech last week gave plenty of play to the Asia Pacific. Indeed, Defence likes to spell it as Asia-Pacific. The hyphen is just one more example of a fundamental tenet of Australian policy: anchor the Americans in Asia. Stephen Smith encapsulated Defence's view of the Asian Century with this line: 'In this century, the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Rim, what some now refer to as the Indo-Pacific, will become the world's strategic centre of gravity.'

With Defence's new affection for the Indo-Pacific, we are nearly back with Deng Xiaoping in 1988. The one big change made to Deng's Asian Century perspective is to make it a three-way not a two-way partnership. In the Defence rendering, it will be the US along with China and India that define what the century becomes.
 
 Photo by SXC user lusi.