In the first two decades following the end of the Cold War, popular works such as Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” and Tom Friedman’s “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” conveyed an optimistic view of an increasingly integrated and peaceful world. Even the conflicts of the past decade and the “War on Terror” seemed to be aberrations from the broader trend of globalization, integration, and free trade. At least for me, however, the past few years have tested that general optimism. Not only have there been increasing tensions globally, but democracies world-wide struggle with increasing polarization and “tribalism.” Brexit, the many aspects of “America First,” retreat from multilateral agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement all presage more entropy than order.
There is however, some solace to be found in a longer-term perspective. While some technological advancements, such as the internet and social media cut both ways, others are less ambiguous. Consider air travel.
When I made my first flight to Asia over 30 years ago there were no direct flights from the U.S. East Coast to Beijing, Tokyo or Seoul. I can still recall the fresh Alaskan air from the observation deck at Anchorage airport where we waited during refuelling stops. With the opening of Russian airspace however, the polar routes enabled direct flights that made such trips faster and easier.
Since then new materials, lighter planes, and other technological advances have enabled planes with the same passenger and cargo loads to travel greater distances and enabled greater connectivity. The location of Perth offers a unique take on this trend. Rather than travel across the breadth of Australia, fly to the U.S. West Coast and then fly a domestic flight to the U.S. East Coast, it is far more convenient to connect in Dubai or Doha and go the other way around with a single stop. This in part explains Western Australians’ excitement about the direct Perth – London route on Qantas opening up next month. Last week I had an eye-opening meeting with Argentinian businessman exploring direct flights from Buenos Aires to Perth flying over the South Pole. If realized, this would be a route that cut hours off of flights from South America to Southeast Asia and would add tremendous connectivity to this side of Australia. As we already enjoy direct flights to Bali (3 hours), Jakarta (4 hours), Singapore (5 hours) and most other regional capitals, it is not too much of a stretch to see Perth as the Southern gateway to the Indo-Pacific and an important connecting hub in the region. Obviously, many challenges and questions remain, but like the construct of the Indo-Pacific itself, it offers a positive narrative in increasing connection and integration in a bleak era.
Professor L. Gordon Flake
is the CEO of the Perth USAsia Centre