Australia must overcome superiority complex to learn from rising Asia

A British sense of superiority: Australia shows little interest in the Asia, despite its rapid rise. EPA/Made Nagi

There will be no more important piece of policy making this year than the White Paper on “Australia in the Asian Century” led by Ken Henry. It is a rare case of long-term thinking in government, of policy having the question before the answer.

The question for the Henry review is not whether Australia should engage more closely with Asia. The panel has been appointed because it knows we must. Its task is to develop Australia’s engagement effectively, set priorities, build a lasting national capacity in key areas, and manage the politics.

Australia is divided on Asia

On Asia, the nation is divided into two groups of people. First, those already engaged in Asian nations and perhaps engaged with Asian heritage populations in Australia. This includes many people in universities. Second, those who know little of Asia and feel uneasy. The classic split between bogans and latté drinkers (or sashimi snafflers?), a group ripe for the picking by Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt.

Right now another round of reactionary anti-Asian politics would be a disaster. This has constrained the Henry panel’s background paper, which has been largely confined to trade and security issues. Those issues are easier to discuss because they can be framed as if Australia is outside Asia and will remain largely unchanged during the “Asian Century”. Comforting illusions, but neither will hold. It is the panel’s job to move us beyond illusion – without causing the horses to bolt. Tricky.

Regional security: an officer of China’s People’s Liberation Army adjusts the uniforms of guards of honor. EPA/How Hwee Young

This is not to say the trade and security issues are minor. How should Australia relate to regional concerns about rising China? ANU defence expert Hugh White argues that Australia’s interests lie in a new security settlement in which the US is no longer hegemonic in Asia, China shares regional power, and there is clear space for middle nations. That’s the right approach.

But the deeper question is where Australia sits in relation to the problem. Herein lies the subtlety of the challenge before the Henry review. It has to sell closer engagement with Asia, yes. But it cannot oversell Australia in Asia any more than it can oversell Asia in Australia.

Hong Kong in reverse

In the long-term, Australia will become an Anglo-European-Asian hybrid. We will mix British heritage governance, law and business with elements of Asian culture and demography: a kind of Hong Kong in reverse (though with more space). Migration from China already outweighs numbers coming from the UK and Ireland. The extraordinary growth of international education since 1990, fuelled by rising Asia, is a taste of things to come. But Australia is not there yet.

Australia is a European heritage nation on the edge of Southeast Asia, moving from its British history to its Asian geography. But few decision makers in Asia see Australia as a part of their region, and Australia cannot change that by diving into Asia in a single act of will. The Henry panel needs to advance our engagement while finding a way to open Australians to the willingness to change that is so characteristic of the peoples of China, South Korea and Singapore. Again tricky. But perhaps this is where higher education comes in.

British sense of superiority lingers

A central feature of East Asia and parts of Southeast and South Asia is a potent curiosity about all things Western-modern and the determination to learn and catch up. East Asia has caught up and, in many areas – for example education and infrastructure – it is racing past. Yet rising Asia engenders remarkably little curiosity in Australian society (though East Asian student achievement has begun to surface). Why the lack of curiosity? The British sense of superiority still lingers. That is another illusion we can do without. The Henry review needs to dent that sense of superiority, while building the confidence of Australians to tackle the new emerging world.

A backpacker passes a Laotian woman dressed in typical Laos sinh on a tourist walk in Vientiane. EPA/Vincent Gautier

Higher education has a key role to play in developing the kind of Asia-awareness that can both strip away the illusions and build local confidence.

There is much to be gained by studying Asia and injecting that knowledge into the public domain. Undifferentiated stereotypes about Asia still abound. In most Asian nations the role of government is more comprehensive than in Adam Smith-style limited liberal states like the US, Britain and Australia.

But it is a grave mistake to treat, say, Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia as if the dynamics of government and markets are identical in each case. These political cultures are quite different to each other. Australia needs to know the specifics of each Asian nation in the way it knows the differences between Germany, France and Italy.

Asian languages are just the start

The role of higher education is not simply to supply Asian literacy at the margins of Australian society. Strategic engagement cannot wait for the slow rollout of language learning in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indonesian-Malay and other languages.

We need Asian literacy. But to make that our sole higher education strategy will only delay our engagement with the region, and put too much emphasis on local, cultural factors at the expense of bigger trends. Many of the economic, ecological, urban and social issues facing emerging Asian nations are global ones that cut across boundaries. Some are felt in Australia as well.

Political and social cultures affect the way the issues play out in each country, but the issues are still common. A problem-oriented strategy to these issues would trigger cooperative projects, and position the social sciences at the forefront of them.

There is much scope to grow research collaborations, not only in the social sciences. There are ten research-intensive universities in East Asia and Singapore as large or larger than Australia’s three largest research players, with similar research quality. Medium to longer-term research cooperation not only solves problems, it begins the vital process whereby we blend ideas with those of experts from other nations in the region.

If the White Paper encourages such collaboration it will advance regional solutions. And if Australian institutions are more active and visible in top end projects in Asia, instead of focusing mainly on student recruitment in the region, the Henry review will have more policy-political material with which to work.

This is an edited excerpt of a speech delivered by Professor Marginson at the Future of Higher Education Conference, hosted by the National Tertiary Education Union at the University of Sydney.

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.