A new report from the Australian Council of Learned Academies argues that smart engagement with Asia is essential for securing Australia’s future.
Australia’s engagement with Asia has too often been characterised by short-termism, opportunism and focus on monetary gain. Smart engagement, by contrast, means more than the pragmatic emphasis on economic benefit, and working towards nurturing wide-ranging, longterm, deep and mutually beneficial relations, based on the principle of reciprocity.
Building stronger transnational links across the region is in the national interest because it will, over time, allow Australia and Australians to become more integrated within a region increasingly characterised by overlaying networks of cross-border connections and relationships.
Australia’s connectivity with Asia can be facilitated by the bridging role of diasporas. More than 8 per cent of Australia’s population was born in Asia. This is a much higher percentage than in other Anglophone countries such as the US (4 per cent) and the UK (2 per cent). Yet Australia does not make enough use of the networks and linguistic and cultural resources inherent in its Asian diaspora population. Asian Australians bring with them linguistic skills, social networks and cultural knowledge, which can enhance links between Australia and Asia. But their role and contribution is insufficiently recognised.
There are also increasing numbers of Australians living and working in Asia, drawn by the opportunities offered by the rise of Asia. This Australian diaspora in Asia can be an important resource for personal knowledge and understanding about the nuances and complexities of the different countries in the region, which can be better utilised. However, relying only on diasporas would not be smart: the majority of the population should be engaged as well. Although English is a global language, being monolingual in English will impede Australia’s ability to engage more effectively with the region.
Many Australians believe that they do not need to learn other languages because of the status of English as a global lingua franca. Eighty-one percent of Australians communicate only in English at home, and interest in foreign language learning, especially Asian languages, has remained stubbornly low in Australia. However, evidence shows that being monolingual in English is no longer adequate in an increasingly interconnected world where others tend to be multilingual. English has become indisputably an Asian language, as it is widely used across the region.
Demand for learning English as a foreign language is high in all countries in the region. Yet proficiency levels are very uneven, with only Singapore (where English is the official working language) and Malaysia demonstrating high proficiency. In highly competitive global economic spheres, multilingual people have a comparative advantage in increasingly global or cross-national companies and organisations.
A 2014 survey found that only 51 per cent of Chinese visitors were satisfied with the availability of Chinese language facilities in Australia, and 37 per cent cited the ‘language barrier’ as a reason for not recommending Australia as a destination. Thus smart engagement with Asia requires breaking ‘the vicious circle of monolingualism’.
Foreign language education remains essential for Australia. It is not sufficient to rely solely on English in the expectation that others will adapt. The principle of reciprocity demands that Australians need to cultivate a preparedness to recognise the inherently complex language diversity within the region, and the capacity and sensitivity to navigate this complexity. More use can be made of the large presence of Asians within Australia, many of whom are multilingual, to familiarise mainstream Australia with Asian languages and to present Australia as an inherently multilingual society. There is considerable room for improvement in connectivity between Australian and Asian researchers.
The density of research collaboration between countries in the region has increased strongly in the past decade. This suggests that intra-Asian research collaboration is on the increase, though from a low base. At present, Australian researchers’ collaboration with colleagues in Asia is below par compared with collaboration levels with Western countries, especially the United States and New Zealand. The exception is collaboration with China, which has risen exponentially.
In the region there is a lack of knowledge about contemporary Australia and outdated stereotypes prevail.
Much of Australia’s collaboration with China is conducted by Australia-based Chinese diaspora researchers, implying that researchers without Chinese backgrounds do not collaborate as much with counterparts in China. Universities and research organisations could do more to harness the networks and knowledge of their diaspora researchers to extend collaboration with Asian countries to other Australian researchers.
Deepening cultural relations between Australia and Asia requires patient relationship building to foster sustained and long-term interconnections and networks. Being the only country in the region with a predominantly European heritage (apart from New Zealand), Australia has a long history of distant relationships with neighbouring countries. This sense of cultural distance has persisted despite strong growth of trade with the region, with seven Asian countries in the top 10 of Australia’s largest trading partners.
The sense of distance is mutual: in most countries in the region there is a lack of knowledge about contemporary Australia and outdated stereotypes prevail. Transforming this state of affairs will require patient and long-term investment in deepening cultural relations.
There has been an exponential rise in investment in cultural diplomacy in the countries of the Asian region. But much of the focus of governments has been on the one-way projection of national soft power arguably to increase their global cultural standing. Australia also invests in cultural diplomacy to counter its perceived soft power deficit in the region. Analysis of Australia’s cultural diplomacy programs and activities shows that there is a beneficial trend towards more collaborative approaches. Much more can be done.
For governments, smart cultural engagement with Asia means creating the conditions for broad and deep cultural exchange and collaboration to flourish, not just by direct investment but by supporting a wide range of community, third-sector and commercial initiatives. Embracing long-term relationship building will be moreeffective than short-term, one-off programs to foster sustained regional connectivity.
Diaspora diplomacy is now an important component in governments’ international relations toolkit. Diaspora diplomacy implies drawing on the human capital and transnational connections of diaspora groups to develop and enhance links between host and home countries. The reliance of developing countries in Asia and the Pacific on their overseas citizens for remittance income has been well-known for some time. Countries such as China and India have very well-developed policies and practices to capitalise on the resources, skills and knowledge of their diaspora populations in the West in domestic economic and technological development.
More recently, Western immigrant nations have woken up to the potential of diaspora diplomacy. For example, the US Department of State has initiated the establishment of an International Diaspora Engagement Alliance to harness the role of US-based diaspora communities as informal ambassadors in their countries of origin, focusing on entrepreneurship, innovation, philanthropy and volunteerism.
Given Australia’s relatively large Asian immigrant population, this can be a model for Australia. Smart diaspora diplomacy should not focus on serving the national interest only; instead it can be a vehicle for transcending national divides to embrace broader global perspectives and common interests. There is an urgent need for action. Australia will be left behind if it does not step up its transnational connectivity with the region.
This is an edited version of the Executive Summary of the Australian Council of Learned Academies report from the Securing Australia’s Future program: Smart engagement with Asia: Leveraging language, research and culture. The report was launched by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb AC, on 5 June.