Engaging Asia starts with people

<em>Engaging with Asia requires more than just visiting Bali's beaches. Photo by Carl Parkes http://www.flickr.com/people/friskodude/ </em>
29 October 2012


With the launch of the Prime Minister’s white paper, ANDREW CARR asks whether everyday Australians are keen to be part of the Asian century.

This weekend saw the release of the Australia in the Asian Century white paper [PDF 4MB]. Yet, while this document is about government policy, its success depends upon the attitudes of the wider public.

Written in under 13 months, the new White Paper is an impressive achievement, bringing together in one place the key figures on Asia’s rise and the main arguments and opportunities for Australia to re-focus on our ‘near north’. The paper sets out five key areas for the government to work on. These are strengthening the existing open economy; boost productivity and Asian literacy; promote business to business links; encourage cooperative security in the region; and promoting social and cultural engagement.

Unsurprisingly, there is no magic bullet offered by the paper for Australia to suddenly be ‘engaged’ with Asia. Instead, most of the document focuses on improving, increasing, enhancing or supporting pre-existing commitments by the Australian government. This is to be expected, the government hopes to use the white paper to tie together its full suite of policies, plus the story of Asia’s rise is well known, and well covered in reports such as the 1989 Garnaut report Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendency, not to mention the more recent avalanche of books and commentary on China’s rise.

Viewed at macro terms, Australia can already be said to be engaged with Asia. The region makes up 71 per cent of Australia’s exports and 48 per cent of our imports, and hosts four out of our top five trading partners. Likewise, Australia has deepening relations with most of its Asian neighbours, and we have exhibited a degree of regional influence and importance since the 1980s.

Yet, and this is why the Government felt a new white paper was necessary, Australians still tend to think of Asia as just the beaches of Bali and the risk of bombs in Bangkok. It took a long time and a lot of work for Australian businesses to follow their American and European counterparts into China, and unfortunately a similar pattern threatens while Indonesia booms off our northern coast. What the macro figures obscure is that it is a comparatively small section of the Australian economy (mining) which is driving our trade with Asia; while most of our service based economy – especially small and medium businesses – is more hesitant.

Instead of expecting a single bold policy idea, the Australia in the Asian Century white paper will be considered a success in 10 or 20 years' time if it encourages a new debate and a new mindset amongst the Australian people. As the debate over Asian language education in Australia demonstrates, the government can write compelling reports and even invest significant funds, but unless there is strong demand by the public for change, then the problem will remain.

Ultimately, engagement with Asia, if it is to mean anything, has to come from the Australian people, it can’t just be an elite occupation. Asia has to become the first place Australians think of when they want to shop, study, invest or go on holiday. That’s happening, but this report suggests we need to do a lot more. Thankfully, universities such as The Australian National University and its College of Asia and the Pacific are leading that ground level engagement. The Australia in the Asian Century white paper is a loud, strong argument that it is these day to day, person to person efforts, as much as any national government policy which will determine Australia’s future prosperity and security in Asia.

Dr Andrew Carr is an Associate Lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. His research interests include Australian foreign policy, and government and politics of Asia and the Pacific.

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