By Paul Kelly
As the centre of Australia's economic gravity moves towards Western Australia, which generates 45 per cent of our exports with its state-of-the-art mining and energy sector, the west is now staking another bid — for intellectual leadership in how Australia sees the world.
The Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne east coast elites face an inevitable challenge from the west, more confident than ever, successful in huge project management and, with 40 per cent of its population born overseas, claiming to be more multicultural than the eastern states.
This week The Australian was a partner with the University of Western Australia for its third In the Zone conference based on the idea of Western Australia as the gateway to a new Asia — an Asia that unites the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The In the Zone message this week is that Australia needs to move away from its rigid East Asia mindset of the past 40 years and think instead of Indo-Pacific Asia. As usual, branding means everything.
The political spearhead of the new approach is Defence Minister and former foreign minister Stephen Smith, a passionate West Australian.
"Everyone sees the rise of China but not enough see the rise of India," Smith said last year in Mumbai.
"Perth and Chennai are closer to each other than Sydney is to Seoul or to Tokyo."
Shifting the strategic language, Smith said recently: "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."
The Indo-Pacific concept will be built into the next defence white paper. This is partly because the idea is now championed by the US, our alliance partner. Indeed, last year US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of ANZUS: "We are also expanding our alliance with Australia from a Pacific partnership to an Indo-Pacific one."
It is a statement of vast potential — an insight into America's growing ties with India and, given the rise of China, how the US sees the evolution of its alliance with Australia, which was once almost exclusively a Pacific Ocean partnership.
Clinton's statement dovetails into the WA push. Indeed, the quest to redefine how Australia sees the region comes from the WA lobby, a new "Indian lobby" in our foreign policy debate and from advocates of an expanded US alliance, all reinforcing each other.
Champions of the Indo-Pacific concept include the new head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese, the Lowy Institute's former executive director Michael Wesley and former Defence Department chief Ric Smith, a West Australian.
At this week's In the Zone meeting the best exposition of the Indo-Pacific idea came from Rory Medcalf, an Indian policy specialist and senior figure at the Lowy Institute. He said: "The Asia that Australia needs to engage, economically, societally and strategically, is no longer limited to the Southeast Asia, Japan and (South) Korea of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, or the China of the 90s and early 2000s; it is also South Asia, but especially India, now a major trading partner, substantial investor, growing military power and diplomatic player, the source of one of our largest skilled migrant communities."
Medcalf, whose father was a West Australian, promoted the idea to conference moderator Elena Douglas in the prelude to the first In the Zone conference in 2009.
He told this week's meeting the Indo-Pacific concept is right for Australia because it is the best geographic description of our interests; it reflects the rebalancing of priorities undertaken by the US; and, most significantly, it captures the reality that the leading states of Asia are now interacting, economically and strategically, across the two oceans.
The recent Asian Century white paper says the Indian Ocean is surpassing the Atlantic and Pacific as the world's busiest corridor. Giving credence to the Indo-Pacific concept, it says this idea means "the western Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean would come to be considered as one strategic arc".
Given that Varghese is about to run DFAT, his recent comments as high commissioner to India deserve attention: "Today it makes more sense to think of the Indo-Pacific, rather than the Asia-Pacific, as the crucible of Australian security.
"It connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans, thereby underlining the crucial role that the maritime environment is likely to play in our future strategic and defence planning."
A fortnight ago Clinton launched in Perth the new USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia and, in her speech, backed Australia's growing ties with India.
The new think tank, linked to the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, will focus on Australia-Asia-US ties and, you can bet, the Indo-Pacific concept.
It testifies to the rising intellectual ambitions from WA, certain to meet resistance from our east coast elites.
They will oppose the Indo-Pacific concept for three reasons. First, from Bob Hawke to Paul Keating the political and emotional investment in China and the East Asia concept is embedded in our power centres and will not lightly surrender.
Second, expressed only in private, is the deep belief that China is far more likely to succeed than India and, in addition, that India lacks the ability to ever assume great power status.
Finally, this redefinition is widely seen to be part of a US strategy of balancing and managing China. Medcalf debunks the notion it is about excluding China, yet such misgivings will be alive in parts of the region.
The US, from the George W. Bush era, has built a new strategic partnership with India, and Australia is now doing the same.
The push, however, from Australia's west coast will not be halted. It is the latest manifestation of the west flexing its intellectual muscle — and Australia would be a better nation if it happened more often.
This article was originally published by The Australian