Within Australia, the report is commanding broad support and respect from the many constituencies and sectors that see a need to deepen engagement with Asia – ranging from business to education to the former political leaders and officials who have dedicated themselves to regional diplomacy for decades. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who drove the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation process in the late 1980s, was notable among the luminaries at the paper’s launch.
To be fair, the report is to be commended for its many sensible aspirations and what it terms ‘pathways’ to getting there.
It rightly emphasizes China, India, Japan, Indonesia and South Korea as Australia’s constellation of key Asian partners – a geo-economic Southern Cross for navigating this altered world.
It thankfully recognizes that any ‘Asian’ century is really an Asia-Pacific or even Indo-Pacific age. The United States remains the indispensable strategic player and the region’s trade and energy arteries span the Indian Ocean as well as the Pacific.
In other words, with this white paper Canberra has made it clear that it does not see the Asian century exclusively as China’s century. This should help neutralize voices that have claimed Australia was falling into China’s geopolitical orbit at the expense of its other relationships.
A real highlight of the paper is its emphasis on the goal of ensuring that all Australian schools offer Asian languages. This is a smart aspiration, and would not just equip new generations of Australians for business and engagement in Asia, but demonstrate a certain cultural respect for the new realities of Asia’s rise.
The fine print, however, is that this outcome will need to be negotiated with state governments – many of which are composed of Labor’s opponents, and are under tight funding constraints of their own. Moreover, critics are already noting the gulf between rhetoric and reality, the fact that government support for Asian languages has been declining for years. More Australians learned Indonesian in the 1970s than now.
Additionally, there are shortages of language teachers, and no immediate initiatives to address this through skilled migration. Indeed, the paper is largely cautious on migration – countenancing nothing like the (then European) migration and population growth revolution that was crucial to the country’s nation-building in the 1950s.
Another plus is that the white paper pointed to thousands of scholarships for Australians and Asians to build professional and cultural connections, a kind of two-way Colombo Plan. The critics, though, are beginning to point out that most or all of these seem to be from existing programs.
An additional intriguing idea promoted by the new paper is to set quotas for Australia’s business leaders and senior bureaucrats to become Asia-literate. For instance, the report proposes that one-fifth of the members of Australia corporate boards should possess Asia skills or experience. It would have been nice to see something similar required of parliamentarians – for instance, requiring them to focus their taxpayer-funded travel on Asia, and to make visits to, say, Europe in summer the absolute exception.