Michael Wesley thinks so; a map where Asia is still depicted in a suspicious jaundice shade, where we fail to grasp the "extraordinary transformation" of China, and where the US of Barack Obama is imagined with a naive faith.
Wesley plans to use his new position as head of the Lowy Institute for International Policy to draw us a new map.
"The discussion about China is taking place on outdated assumptions about China and where it is going," he says. "By describing China as an ‘authoritarian’ state, it’s a way of using a category to avoid thinking about the way the beast actually works."
He doesn’t dispute that China is indeed authoritarian, but that label "brings to mind images of a state that can control things and, at the blink of an eye, can crush popular dissent to get things done. The real picture is much more complex."
The Chinese Government "takes account of the popular will – it’s very sensitive to popular dissent," Wesley says. "It’s encouraging that the Chinese Government is less effective than the authoritarian label would imply."
In many areas of policy, there is no single Chinese position, Wesley says. Various parts of the Chinese system speak with varying voices now. For example, he points to the controversy over the abortive bid by the state-owned firm Chinalco for a bigger stake in Rio Tinto: "It’s very interesting that there seem to be different responses coming out of the Chinese state, and we need to be careful of which ones we take seriously."
He wants to make an "appeal to move past the simplistic black box expectations."
Wesley, who is moving to Sydney to take the Lowy job after a year as a visiting fellow at Hong Kong University, thinks that Australia suffers from a "national immaturity" in dealing with Asia.
"There’s a dangerous debate being peddled that because one has an interest in Asia, one has become a captive of it. This is a really dangerous undercurrent." Does he think there is a racist element to this?
"Absolutely. There is an underlying assumption here that, somehow, however much we trade with Asian counties, our interests will always be divergent. So that people with an interest in these countries are a potential fifth column."
Potential traitors, in other words. "This is an element of national immaturity that we need to move past." And Wesley says that the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has allowed himself to become a victim of this syndrome.
Remember the extraordinary episode in April where Rudd asked not to be seated next to a Chinese diplomat, Beijing’s former ambassador to Australia, Fu Ying, on a BBC TV set? He asked to sit next to a white man instead – even though he had known Madam Fu for a decade.
"His reaction was quite silly," says Wesley. At the time, Wesley said that Rudd was "so spooked by the Manchurian Candidate syndrome in Australia that he has purposely been uncreative in setting out a China policy." And: "What strikes me about Rudd’s policy is there isn’t one. He makes it on the run."
Wesley knows Rudd well. They are, with Wayne Swan, part of the "Nambour mafia", matriculants of Nambour High School on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Wesley is a former head of the Griffith University Asia Institute; he and Rudd were part of the small club of foreign-policy wonks in Queensland. Rudd asked him to co-chair a session of the 2020 Summit.
Wesley has identified a Kevin Rudd China conundrum – we have a Prime Minister who is expert on China, yet doesn’t have a clear policy on it.
Wesley’s solution? Rudd should make a major speech on China to establish a framework so that the relationship is not buffeted by controversies over, for instance, Chinalco or the defence white paper. And Wesley intends to lend a hand. His first priority will be to work up policy papers on China in particular and Asia in general: "If the institute has any function it’s to broaden understanding of the big powers to our north."
He thinks we need to update our thinking on the big power to our north-east, too: "I find it interesting the way that Obama has handled visits by allies – Britain, Japan, Australia, and others.
"There hasn’t been the glitz, the glamour or the emphasis that Bush gave them as special interlocutors of the US. Obama has dealt with them as typical, routine consultations in a deliberate attempt to treat everyone the same way. That’s significant for Australia, which has put a whole lot of store in building a special relationship with the US," Wesley says.
Set up by the Westfield mogul and soccer entrepreneur Frank Lowy six years ago, the institute has become a central part of Australia’s apparatus for thinking about the world.
Its founding executive director, career diplomat Allan Gyngell, had the credibility and the contacts to establish it as a serious centre of expertise. Where Gyngell was cautious, however, Wesley is opinionated. Where Gyngell’s mission was to establish the institute as an important voice, Wesley’s seems to be to use that voice with missionary purpose – to persuade us to tear up our old map of the world and to give us a new one.
Peter Hartcher, the Herald’s international editor, is a visiting fellow of the Lowy Institute.
This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/rudd-can-help-us-make-a-modern-map-of-asia-20090622-ctxm.html