Australia - Asia relations

Even closer economic engagement in Asia: compelling and overwhelming reasons why


Australia’s economic future rests squarely in its region—Asia—though shadow treasurer CHRIS BOWEN says political leaders here need to do more ‘walk the walk’ than simply ‘talk the talk’.

It’s a truism these days that Australia’s economic future lies primarily in Asia. The case for closer economic engagement in Asia is compelling and overwhelming.

Take your pick of facts or indicators: there are hundreds which point Australia’s economic compass towards Asia. Whether it is the fact that eight of our top 10 trading partners are already in Asia; the fact Indonesia is about overtake nations such as Russia, Germany and France in economic size; or the economic opportunities created by having the majority of the world’s middle class live in Asia in coming decades, the trend and opportunities are all one-way.

By and large, this has been well understood not only by governments and the community for a long time. From the Hawke government’s commissioning of the Garnaut Australia and the North-East Asian Ascendancy report to the Gillard government commissioning Ken Henry to pen the Australia in the Asian Century report, there has been a consistent recognition that more and better engagement is a good thing.

And yet, our national record is appalling.

The degree of Asian literacy and experience at the board level of our major companies is derisory. Despite (or because of) years of different policy approaches to improving Asian language proficiency in the Australian population, we have gone backwards.

Most of our Asian language proficiency comes from immigration, not education. More Australian school students studied Indonesian in 1972 than do so today.

It isn’t good enough to say most decision makers in Asia speak English so we don’t need to lift our level of Asian language proficiency.  This approach borders on arrogant.

A nation signals its interest and respect by its level of cultural and linguistic engagement, and we are falling behind.

Our relationships with many Asian neighbours remains highly transactional and lacks ballast; the respective bilateral relationships can easily be thrown off track by things which would be minor irritants between nations which better understand each other. Indonesia is the primary example of this, but it is far from alone.

The problem is clear. And so are some principles which must underpin a national effort to do better.

First, there needs to be more continuity between governments of different persuasions.

Governments change, but the importance of Asia for our future does not. The nature of our relationship with the United States doesn’t skip a beat with a change of government these days, yet there is a tendency for a new government to scrap initiatives which the other side thought of.

This should stop.

The Australia in the Asian Century white paper, for example, was a fine blueprint and it was a shame it was archived when the Abbott government came to power.

Second, there needs to be a clear commitment from the very top of government. We need a ‘top down’ from government as well as ‘bottom up’ approach from the community. These two things are not mutually exclusive.

The prime minister and treasurer need to be as deeply committed to deepening Asian engagement as the foreign and trade ministers.

APEC is primarily an economic body and, as an Australian creation, the Australian government should be looking at ways of reinvigorating APEC as multilateral body.

One day it might be unremarkable that an Australian prime minister can speak Mandarin or even that the majority of an Australian cabinet has studied in Asia or speaks an Asian language.

As treasurer, I would also suggest an Asian Caucus of G20 finance ministers to compare notes before G20 finance ministers meetings.

Finally, political leaders need to ‘walk the wal’” as well as talking. It is hypocritical for Australian political leaders to lecture young people on the need to lift their levels of Asian language proficiency and engagement when we are collectively pretty ordinary at it ourselves.

One day it might be unremarkable that an Australian prime minister can speak Mandarin or even that the majority of an Australian cabinet has studied in Asia or speaks an Asian language. Until that day, we have a lot of work to do.

There are few questions more important and fundamental to our economic future than deepening our relations with Asia.

I’m optimistic we can get it right. But it will take nothing short of a sea-change in approach from governments, educational institutions and business to get the level of engagement we need.

This article was first published in the Labor Herald.

Taipei at night. Chris, Flickr CC BY 2.0

About Chris Bowen

Chris Bowen is Shadow Treasurer. He has served as a minister in previous Labor governments.

22nd January, 2016

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