The Australian
May 24, 2010

Opinion

Growing need to sharpen focus on Asia

by Rowan Callick Original: growing-need-to-sharpen-focus-on-asia/story-e6frg6so-1225870238633

WE have travelled far since the White Australia policy ended.
But the journey of engagement with our neighbourhood has no
single agreed aim- although most of us would not want Australia
to be one of those countries that are at odds with their region.
There is no ultimate destination, no finishing line. The key
questions are whether we remain on the move and, if so, at what
pace.

The profile of our population is becoming more Asian - 6.7 per
cent at the 2006 census. Our balance of trade with east Asia was
$23.4 billion in 2008.

But also by 2008, our investment in all Asia, increasingly the
centre of global economic gravity, comprised just 18 per cent of
our total investment overseas. Our investment in Italy was close
to that in India, our investment in Luxembourg close to that in
China. We had less invested in all 10 ASEAN countries combined
than in France.

Very few chief executives, directors in our top corporations,
cultural or media leaders, high school or university heads,
senior government officials or politicians have had any
experience of studying, working or living in Asia.

Experts on Asia may be called in to headquarters to give
briefings, but when key decisions are made, in most cases those
managers have left and the Australians who remain in the room -
who may be board members, councillors or, indeed, ministers -
have mostly had only modest contact with the region.

Our new media are lopsidedly focused on North America and
Britain, and on the celebrities who emerge there. Our mass media
employ fewer full-time journalists in Asia now than they did a
decade ago. Commercial television has no presence there.

Asian studies, especially of languages, continue to retreat in
universities and schools. Our universities are, in contrast,
full of Asian students - although the extent of their engagement
with Australia is questioned.

Australia has signed up to the key regional organisations for
which it is eligible. There is less heated debate these days
about whether Australia is part of Asia, although Australians
continue to elude being described as Asian.

Some complained that the Howard government's journey towards
Asian engagement was too slow and half-hearted. The Rudd
government, of which many "Asia hands" in Australia had expected
much, has not found the going much easier so far. The
Asia-Pacific community that is one of the government's core
multilateral goals remains a chimera, despite some expressions
of support.

A plethora of issues have arisen to cloud relations with India,
with Japan, with China, key players all. And although relations
with Indonesia are as warm as ever, this is largely confined to
senior leaders; the people-to-people links remain largely tepid.

Zhu Feng, the deputy director of the School of International
Relations at Beijing University, said during a visit last year
that Australia's relationship with China remains "just at the
commercial level". He said: "Bilateral relations as a whole are
still far from intimate; they are undeveloped."

His words might be applied more broadly to Australia's
connections with Asia. How can we move beyond Asia as the source
of our TVs and toasters, the buyer of our iron ore and coal, and
Asia the cuisine to become more familiar with our neighbours and
therefore more at ease living where we do? On balance, we remain
on the move, but at the almost imperceptible pace of Noh drama.

Where might we look, beyond mere rhetoric, to find leadership
and progress? What should be our next steps?

This commentary raises key issues to be addressed at the
Asialink Asia Society 2010 National Forum in Canberra tomorrow,
to be addressed by the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader

 

See also

Funds needed for Asia literacy in schools