China fetish misses Asia complexity

Question. Which country will have the world's fastest-ageing population from 2050? Answer. China.

Question. Which country is unique among the world's major powers in having no independent institutions? Answer. China.

These two facts alone should give pause to anyone thinking that Australia's policy in Asia should be all about China.

In recent years, Australian business people, politicians and commentators have been in something of a China frenzy. The country has been neglecting the risks and has been obsessed with the opportunities of China's runaway growth.

But China has unique structural vulnerabilities Australia needs to keep in mind as the federal government approaches the release of its Asian century white paper.

And an obsession with China blinds us to the possibilities in the rest of the region. And what a region it is.

''Asia is so huge and diverse that it's a mistake to compare Asia with Europe,'' suggests Professor Andrew MacIntyre of the Australian National University and an expert on Asia.

''India is Europe,'' he says. Come again? ''India has as much diversity and scale as Europe,'' and yet it's just one of the countries of Asia.

''Asia is just orders of magnitude bigger and more complex than Europe. We lose sight of just how big and diverse it is, and no one country is across all of it.''

And the comparison falls down for another key reason. As a former US deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, likes to say: ''It's unthinkable that we could wake up tomorrow and find that a major war has broken out in Europe; it's quite conceivable that we could wake up tomorrow and find that a major war has broken out in Asia.''

Asia is big, full of opportunity and full of danger. We live in it and we need to know about it beyond its stereotypes.

So it's reassuring to see that Australia's two national political leaders are spending today in key countries in Asia, other than China.

Julia Gillard is in India and Tony Abbott in Indonesia, two countries indispensable to thinking about the future.

Yes, China has been the most conspicuous source of growth in the Asia-Pacific in the past decade. It will continue to be central to all major events in the region for decades to come.

But three sobering developments have come together to remind us of the risks of putting all our eggs in the basket marked ''China''.

First, the slowdown in China's economic growth; second, its increasing assertiveness as it revives long-dormant territorial disputes with half a dozen of its neighbours; third, the extraordinary scandal and purge of Bo Xilai, a former commerce minister and one of its most promising future leaders.

These remind us of the economic, strategic and political risks inherent in dealing with the Middle Kingdom.

And while all countries carry risks, it's notable that India and Indonesia don't suffer from some of the vulnerabilities inherent in China.

For instance, when China enters its phase of rapid ageing, India will still have a young and vibrant population, while Indonesia is about 20 years behind China in its demographic senescence.

And both Indonesia and India have created solutions to the problem of China's fragility as a nation state. Because all China's institutions - from its courts to its military to its government departments - are interchangeable with its ruling party, it has no independent mechanisms of state. How does it manage a change of political power? And for how long can it avoid any such change?

India and Indonesia have answered this question through the institutions and habits of democracy. It was prophesied that democracy could not survive in either of these countries because they were too poor and backward. But India's democracy has been long and stable, and Indonesia's transition to democracy has been a standout success story.

These powers have big and growing economies and carry enormous strategic clout. India is a counterweight to China - it developed its long-range Agni missile specifically to be able to deliver nuclear warheads into China in a counter to Beijing's nuclear weapons.

And Indonesia is a potential counterweight to China. Australia's security, of course, depends on the country that straddles our northern approaches.

And if China's assertiveness should one day flare into aggression, Indonesia will be, with the US, perhaps the most important country in managing the consequences in south-east Asia.

Of course, India and Indonesia are not problem-free themselves.

India's trajectory of economic growth, launched in 1992, is now endangered by a failure of political will to pursue new reform.

Even some of the most basic functions are proving a big problem - India suffered the biggest power failure in history when a collapsing electricity grid blacked out power to 600 million people in August.

The credit rating agency Standard and Poors has warned India might be the first among the fast-rising big developing countries - the so called BRIC nations of Brazil, Russia, India and China - to become a fallen economic angel.

In Indonesia, troubling trends include a growing tolerance of religious violence and oppression. The police and security agencies of Indonesia have done a first-rate job in finding and removing terrorists from the streets.

But at the other end of the power structure - at the very top - the President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has shown a worrying indifference to religious riots and persecution of minorities.

For instance, when a mob of the Sunni majority attacked a group of minority Shiites recently, killing two with knives and machetes and injuring seven and rampaging through homes setting 35 houses alight, the Minister for Religious Affairs did not upbraid the criminals but advised the victims to convert.

A wise approach to Asia rejects fads and monomaniacal obsessions and understand the rich opportunities and the dark dangers, in all its countries.

Peter Hartcher is the international editor.

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