Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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English (Australian) – Engagement

May 27th, 2011 · No Comments · Engagement, English (Australian)


Relates to engagement

Employment of the term ‘engagement’ in the lexicon and discourse of international relations is typically amorphous and imprecise. Its application in the Australian context is no exception. There is no common understanding or agreement as to what the ‘engagement’ connotes, despite its pervasive and relatively longstanding usage.

‘Engagement’ is generally portrayed as a positive strategy for dealing with the Asian region. It implies working with the region, rather than against it, and suggests a vision of security with (and indeed within) the region.

A wide range of interactions are often seen as contributing toward that endeavor. A recent report published by Pricewaterhouse Coopers, the Melbourne Institute and Asialink, for example, sought to measure the extent of Australia’s engagement with Asia by examining categories of trade, investment, research and business development, education, tourism, migration, and humanitarian assistance.[1] A raft of dialogue and other practical activities are routinely added to these categories when discussing Australia’s engagement with Asia, including official visits, NGO collaboration, and defense, police and intelligence agreements (which often encompass training, personnel exchanges and exercises).

Largely due to Asia’s economic rise and its growing importance to Australia’s continued prosperity, recent Australian governments have officially placed a high priority upon advancing Australia’s ‘engagement’ with the Asian region. The term ‘Asian engagement’ is one most readily associated with the government of Paul Keating (1991-1996).[2] Following the demise of the Keating government, the Howard government immediately noted – contrary to expectations at the time – ‘that closer engagement with Asia would be our highest foreign policy priority.’[3] The Rudd government subsequently went on to define comprehensive Asian engagement as the ‘third pillar’ of its foreign policy approach.[4]

In practical terms, despite the prominence afforded to Asian ‘engagement’ by successive Australian governments, Australia has long faced an uphill battle in its efforts to engage with the Asian region. The reasons for this are both exogenous and endogenous. Despite its geographical proximity to Asia, in cultural terms Australia is not an Asian country, which has led some in the region – most notably Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad during the early 1990s – to seek to limit Australia’s capacity to ‘engage’ Asia through membership of key regional institutions. As reflected by Samuel Huntington’s famous description Australia is a ‘torn country’, a society divided over whether or not it belongs to Asia.[5] Some within that society remain wary of ‘enmeshment’ with Asia, as reflected most graphically by the startling popularity of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party during the mid-1990s. The term ‘engagement’ has been politically useful from this perspective in that it has not been as threatening to this sector of society as other possible descriptors – such as ‘enmeshment’ or ‘Asianization’ – which convey a sense of threat to Australian identity. However, Canberra’s pursuit of engagement towards Beijing raises awkward questions with regards to the implicit, countervailing strategy of containment pursued by its American alliance partner. Resolving this tension, and consequently the future of Australia’s deployment of engagement, will be a crucial element in Canberra’s security calculations in the future.




[2] See James Cotton and John Ravenhill (eds.), Seeking Asian Engagement: Australia in World Affairs 1991-1995 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[3] The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, ‘Australia’s Place in the World’, Address to the NSW Division of the Liberal Party, Sydney, 26 November 1996.

[4] See, for example, Prime Minister the Right Hon. Kevin Rudd, ‘It’s time to build an Asia-Pacific Community’, Address to the Asia Society Australasia Centre, Sydney, 4 June 2008.

[5] Samuel P. Huntington, ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’, Foreign Affairs, vol.72, no.3, Summer 1993, p.42.


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