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Asian century white paper talks the talk, can Australia walk the walk?

Ken Henry’s team has provided a detailed and useful blueprint for future action in the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. But the government will need to ramp up its domestic efforts to improve…

The Gillard government has a long road ahead of it to enact the recommendations of the Asian Century White Paper. AAP/Paul Miller

Ken Henry’s team has provided a detailed and useful blueprint for future action in the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper. But the government will need to ramp up its domestic efforts to improve scientific and cultural literacy, as well as its engagement with China and Indonesia if Australia is to maximise its competitiveness in Asia.

The white paper sets five tasks: maintaining a productive and resilient Australian economy; building capabilities; operating in growing Asian markets; building sustainable security; and achieving deeper and broader relationships in Asia.

In all these areas, big asks are made of business, NGOs and the Australian people while pledging strong government action and support. This is reasonable. The Australian people as well as their government must commit the resources needed for Australia to fully embrace the benefits of its Asian neighbourhood.

But the government needs to improve its own performance in some domestic and international areas to grasp the opportunities highlighted and provide a model of leadership in the Asian Century.

Educational challenges

On the domestic front, the white paper’s authors lament the recent decline in Australian high schoolers’ reading and mathematics performance relative to Asian countries, and the decades-long erosion of Asian language studies. They call for Australia to be ranked as a top-five country in the world for reading, science and mathematics literacy by 2025, and for all Australian students to be encouraged study an Asian language throughout their schooling.

All well and good.

But mapped against what the Chief Scientist has warned is a growing “anti-science culture and the avoidance of science and maths courses by Year 11 and 12 students, it is clear that government and educational leaders have their work cut out for them.

It is not encouraging that the new secondary school physics curriculum being considered earlier in the year was criticised for containing too much “sociology of physics” and not enough equations. The government’s lukewarm response to the educational funding recommendations of the Gonski Review are of further concern.

The commitment to use new school funding arrangements to ensure access to Asian languages is sensible. As is the call for schools, universities, business and the community to encourage Asian language study. But, as with science study, spruiking demand is a vexed issue, and achieving the needed mindset change among young Australians may prove a challenge to the imagination and persuasive ability of the private and public sector alike.

Talking to Asia

On the foreign front, the white paper sets an initial priority for developing strategies with China, India, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea as well as maintaining strong alliance ties with the United States. It envisages official and non-official dialogue with partner countries, and specifically supports “China’s participation in the region’s strategic, political and economic development”.

All this is sensible, and Australia has good ties with its neighbours, but these ties need to be energised. Given the recent controversies over policies towards Beijing and Washington, it would useful for Canberra to take up the recommendation by Linda Jakobson of the Lowy Institute and pursue an annual strategic and economic dialogue with Beijing. Such a dialogue would be a valuable forum to convey Australia’s perspectives on its US alliance and other strategic intents, while better discerning China’s own concerns and intentions.

The government also needs to take the initiative in its relations with Indonesia. President Yudhoyono terms Australia a “close friend”, and tensions arising from the abrupt cut-off of cattle exports early this year have eased. But Yudhoyono departs office in 2014, and Indonesia’s commendable decentralisation and economic growth have been accompanied by the decentralisation of corruption and a trend toward economic nationalism. Before too much longer, Indonesia’s economy will be larger than Australia’s – and future leaders in Jakarta may be less amenable to Australian interests if no initiative is taken in the near term.

The Commonwealth government should jump-start is engagement with private sector organisations with knowledge of Indonesian trade and governance issues, stimulate “second-track” dialogue with Indonesian counterparts on these issues, and organise a long overdue state visit by the prime minister to Jakarta. This should be done well in advance of Youdhoyono’s retirement.

The white paper is a valuable and timely document that will stimulate debate about the dynamic, growing, and crucial region to our north. But to keep faith with its intention to make the most of the Asian Century, the government needs to commit the financial, intellectual, and human resources needed to take a leading role.

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20 Comments sorted by

  1. Marilyn Shepherd


    Just calling it an Asian century as if the wealth of Asia should be ours by right is very racist.

    How many of those countries navel gaze endlessly about how to deal with Australia, that whiney little dump down in the bottom of the world.

    All these papers are about us exploiting them, they are ridiculous.

    Asia and Asians have been there a very long time after all.

  2. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Asia!!!? It's next door! And they've got money! And we can get into some of that.


    Who needs to understand Asia when we can understand that? What else is there?

    What a marvellous transformation - from the White Australia Policy to "engaging" with them... selling them stuff and making money. There's progress for you.

    Yes - we can be a part of the Asian Century - as a 24/7 convenience store. But not part of Asia - oooh no .... they're foreign, and different.

    So we'll…

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    1. Chris Harper


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Gee, people, us included, tend to identify with people with whom they have an historical and cultural affinity.

      Who'da thunk it?

      After all, it isn't as if the Francophone or Hispanic countries do anything similar, or that the various ethnic diasporas around the world look to their home populations.

      Oh, wait....

      But no, Australian culture is oh so deeply deserving of criticism because we don't act in a way completely different to everyone else and foreign to human nature.

      BTW, an openness to trade tends to be associated with cultural dynamism and flexibility. You got something against that? What's your problem with trade in the first place? You got an objection to your friends and neighbours improving their living standards? You want to close off trade so we become some sort of South Pacific North Korea or Albania? Self contained, inefficient and poor?

    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Chris Harper

      Not opposed to trade per se Chris, just think there's more to life than running a shop.

      Everyone who's ever gone near Asia has gone there with a view to making a quid out of the place. They've pissed most of them off.

      If we want to come across as "outsiders" - as foreigners looking for a self-interested quid and nothing else - then we will be regarded accordingly.

      I guess what I'm annoyed about is that we see Asia as somewhere else, as someone else, an opportunity ... but not us. We live somewhere else entirely... just outside Washington or Utah... certainly not in the outer suburbs of Jakarta.

    3. Chris Harper


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      We live somewhere else entirely... just outside Washington or Utah... certainly not in the outer suburbs of Jakarta."
      Peter, what you say is true, but the reality is we have more in common with Washington, or Utah, or Vancouver, or Winchester, than we do with Jakarta. We have a greater level of cultural affinity, shared history, political principle and even family relationships. I have a stronger relationship with my cousins, where ever they are in the world, than I do with the bloke three blocks…

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    4. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Chris Harper

      Your cousins probably know where you live Chris... pop in for a cuppa, maybe even help you paint the place or mow the lawn every now and again. I don't think the good burghers of Salt Lake City even know we exist. So we might like to have this sentimental attachment to decent christian white folks all over the world, but I don't think that relationship, affection and connection is reciprocated. Such is the dilemma of colonial outposts....

      Ideally yes trade is a win-win situation. But that…

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  3. Walter Adamson

    logged in via Twitter

    Actually I agree with the sentiment of Peter Ormonde and Marilyn Shepherd as it struck me also how we have no shame in positioning ourselves as the gold digger of Asia. Even in business, often despised, we try hard to understand the needs of our customers and how we can serve them. The new Asia strategy goes along the lines that "you have money" and we're going to make a bunch of stuff and you need to buy it. Bizarre.

    Anyway let's hope that the Education objectives are met, and we see a good result from those in the 20 year gestation period. That's what Barry Jones also identified as the fundamental platform and proposed in 1982 in Sleepers, Wake! Technology and the Future of Work.

    And the rest is all platitudes. Darwin as the gateway to Asia - yawn, are these people on drugs or sleeping pills?

  4. Ian Donald Lowe

    Seeker of Truth

    How many thousands of times must we suffer the repetetive phrase "Asian century"? I am sick of hearing it already and the paper was only released yesterday. Regarding that release, there seemed to be a lot of talk about nothing in particular and a few key phrases that were very poorly defined. Perhaps the paper should have focused on more specific subjects, such as how low one should bow to one's Chinese masters and how do you say "Thank you master, may I have another?" in Chinese.

    Personally, I don't think this century will go quite the way the authors of this paper believe it will. Time will tell.

  5. Bruce Moon



    Thanks for the overview.

    By the many comments to your article citing frustration with the term 'Asian Century' and the linkage with economic participation, it is clear there is a perception the current federal government is following rather than leading (on this issue).

    My perception is that Australia needs a distinctive policy on how this nation will address the prospects (and pitfalls) that will arrive due to the progressing refocusing of trade and diplomatic relations from the…

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    1. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Bruce Moon

      If I seem cynical, it doesn't have much to with Asia but is more related to my distast of a house full of politicians who are totally addicted to catch-phrases. "The asian century" got a fair hammering again today and I am sure this phrase will continue to be used ad-nauseum.

      I made some comments about China, mainly because the rose-coloured glasses of our love affair with China and the trade deals that relationship offers, tends to ignore the simple fact that China is a totallitarian regime and…

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  6. Bruce Munday

    communications consultant

    White papers are designed to promote discussion and generate fresh thinking. But judging from the responses so far, perhaps this WP needs a further fact sheet on how to surmount the pessimisim, cynicism and negativity that now seems to be embedded in our public discourse. Of course there is an emphasis on commerce (i.e. trade), without which there wuld be a chorus of 'its the economy, stupid'. But trade also opens doors to cultural understanding and positive relatiionships - sure beats going to war with people and cultures you don't understand.

    1. Walter Adamson

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Bruce Munday

      Bruce, I think that you're over-reacting to genuine concern about how this initiative is positioned. There's no doubt that commerce underpins all substantial relationships, that's why FTAs and such are so important.

      But to quote Murray Hunter in The 4th Media, this is the point: "The paper also reeks of Austro-centrism where most of the points made in the document are written with the expectation that Australia will win out of closer ties with Asia without necessarily giving much back in exchange – such as Australia having closer ties with Asian universities in order to attract students and skilled workers. Rather one-way to say the least."

    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Walter Adamson

      Precisely Walter. It's all about us innit? We're gonna make a motza if we can do our own ads in Mandarin or Thai... Why else would we be interested in Asia? What have they got to teach us or offer?

      Not much humility here folks ... just thinly disguised greed and self-interest - as usual when folks with blue eyes look east -or in our case, north.

      Not only can't we see, we don't know what we're looking at... what is really valuable. Taking shallow to new depths this.

  7. Seán McNally

    Market and Social Researcher at eris strategy

    Among the comments posted so far there appears to be an unfortunate view that engaging with another country involves subservience to a new empire and crass opportunism. Both lines are more about the politics of emotional reaction than good foreign policy.

    In terms of shared history, yep its history. As with all history it is in the past and what we do now is the history others will study possible claim as a reason to continue with a course that has outlived its value and truth. As for its…

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  8. Christopher White

    PhD candidate at La Trobe University

    Hmmmmm ...... let's wait and see what the reality will be. My experience in Australia (and I'm distinctly Anglo) is that there is still a definite undercurrent of racism here, albeit fading as a younger, post-war generation comes to the fore. Furthermore, the whole idea of 'engagement with Asia' seems to be predicated on a purely economic basis; the idea of affiliation on any other level is seen as neither necessary nor desirable by many. As my Japanese partner who has lived here for over 20 years…

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  9. Brian Feeney

    Town Planner

    Unfortunately, this blueprint is for a future that is very unlikely to happen.

    A basic understanding of exponential growth (google Albert Bartlett) and the safe operating limits for planet earth strongly suggest that the global economy can't double again from where we are now. This would require the consumption of almost the same quantity of the earth's natural resources and ecological services over the next 20-30 years as has occured in all of human history up to now.

    It's an illusion that hundreds of millions of Asians will be able to consume at the levels we now enjoy in Australia.

    We need a totally different policy approach for the resource constrained future we almost certainly face

  10. gary hudson

    retired engineer

    Having raised three children and assisted with the upbringing of 8 grandchildren has required us to note and be involved in the education process.Over time, we have noted a substantial reduction in the teaching hours, the depth of subject knowledge and the dedication of teaching staff. The desire of australian students to achieve at their highest academic level is far below that of Asian counterparts, and finally, parental complacency has allowed both thepreceding to occur. We have been spoiled over many decades and enjoyed a very comfortable standard of living. We have embaced being part of the global economy (particularly popular catchphrase used by politicians) but have failed to recognise that this requires us to maintain our competitive position.
    Alas, human laziness has caused us to fall well behind those seeking a better quality of life.

    1. Walter Adamson

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to gary hudson

      Gary I don't know about the teaching side but certainly I think that our great quality of life has been the main contributor to our general lack of ambition and complacency. And actually it's the confusion between the two which also contributes because people praise our quality of life, while not understanding that our standard of living has been trending down for many many decades. There is a blip up at the moment according to the report itself, but that is all driven by China and we are just passengers…

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  11. Walter Adamson

    logged in via Twitter

    Actually this whole Paper is a drover's dog's extract of the real thing written by the Boston Consulting Group "The $10 Trillion Prize" published last month, see here

    That book contains explicit market analysis about demand and needs, and does specific comparisons across sectors such as education. If you have even a cursory glance at it ($16 on Kindle) you will see how much a PR stunt the Asian Century White Paper actually is.