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S T Lee Lecture on Asia and the Pacific at ANU

August 27, 2012

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting the S T Lee Lecture on Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. The lecture was established in 2007 in honour of Dr Lee Seng Tee. Dr Lee is a philanthropist who invests in education and scholarship. He has donated generously to universities in Singapore, and Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and the Australian National University. He has also contributed to the building and restoration of libraries at Cambridge, Oxford and Nan’an in China.

My speech focused on three areas: the transformation of Asia, the ongoing dispute in the South China Sea and the relationship between Australia and China and Australia and the United States.

On the transformation of Asia, I explored the development and maturation of the region over the last 50 years in terms of social statistics. I focused on indicators such as longevity, gender equality, education, and literacy.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of Asian children completing primary school. For example, in 1981 only two-thirds of Indonesian children completed primary school. By 2009, World Bank data highlights that nearly every child did.

More and more Asian students are also going on to higher education, with greater numbers now opting to study in Asia as opposed to studying abroad.

Educational opportunities have increasingly been afforded to women and girls. In China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, there were more women at university than men at the end of the last decade. The gender education gap is slowly closing.

Correlatively, adult literacy rates have risen.

Improvement in education has provided for a decisive decline in infant mortality, and a significant increase in life expectancy. For example, from 1960 to 2010, life expectancy increased from a little over 40 years to:

• 73 years in China;
• 75 years in Vietnam;
• 69 years in Indonesia; and
• 65 years in India.

These measures confirm that most of Asia has transformed in a relatively short period of time.

However, I noted that it is valuable to qualify the expectation that the century belongs to Asia. Large Asian economies will face serious challenges this century. There is a risk that countries will be at risk of getting stuck in the middle-income trap, unable to build the robust governance and legal systems needed to propel higher economic growth.

To sustain growth in the decades ahead, to escape the middle income trap, and to continue improvement in social indicators, a lot of Asian economies will have to embark on broad reform.

Moreover, strategic ambitions should be postponed. Take the South China Sea dispute. Growth and improvement will be at risk if the region doesn’t amicably resolve disagreement over countries’ complex and overlapping territorial and maritime claims.

I suggested two relevant models that could be adopted for these countries to successfully manage competing interests.

The first is the Antarctic Treaty System. Member countries of the System have successfully put aside their differences over territorial sovereignty, focusing instead on working together to promote peace, stability and resource conservation.

The second are joint development zones. Joint development zones are designed to facilitate equitable and mutually beneficial development of overlapping areas. These zones are operating successfully around the world.

Of course neither an Antarctic Treaty-style system nor joint development zones will provide exhaustive remedies in the South China Sea. But these models are still worth exploration and examination.

On Australia’s relationship with China and the US, I stressed that it is crucial we resist the notion that there is a binary choice.

Three factors support this:

(1) both the Chinese and the Americans tell us that their own relationship is very good. This is confirmed by the fact that the Chen dissident affair failed to dislodge the recent economic and strategic dialogue between the Americans and the Chinese in China.

(2) There is enormous self-interest in the interdependent relationship. The prosperity of both countries would be undermined by a period of military conflict or frozen relations.

(3) The Australia-China relationship will continue to be robust because it is in both our interests to enjoy a strong partnership.

Whether or not this century belongs to Asia, this is a world undergoing real change. It is therefore more important than ever for all countries to adhere to fair, open, and respectful international system.

Read my speech in full here.

One Comment
  1. Ralf Kluin permalink
    August 27, 2012 10:56 am

    Bob, Thank you for your insightful information, allowing for discussion amongst our ongoing voting electorate. Your ability, utilising your great insight, to keep us informed, demonstrates, in my opinion, your commitment to the maintenance of Australian democracy. Your words, written above, provoked me to observe and to reply to you, that I, often at times, feel that in a perfect world, there may be every reason for me to believe that mankind, existing on this small planet, Earth, can reason for a more formidable distribution of its finite resources, currently owned by few. But then we are sometimes faced with sheer greed as seems the case as we currently debate the Carbon, mining and schools issues for implementation in our Australian polity. Adam Smith in his “The theory of Moral Sentiments” wrote, “The rich man glories in his riches because he feels they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world … and he is fonder of his wealth on this account than for all the advantages it procures him.”

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