Sunday, May 23, 2010

Australia’s Growing need to sharpen focus on Asia

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 PrimeMinister and the Opposition Leader
The Australian – Opinion by Rowan Callick

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