In late February Julie Bishop, Australia’s former foreign minister, declared that she would not recontest her parliamentary seat in the forthcoming election (set for May). Having resigned her position in the cabinet in August last year, after the leadership fight that saw Scott Morrison become prime minister, Bishop has decided to leave the parliament as well. Bishop served five years in the role and was generally seen as having performed admirably in the face of a shifting global political landscape — particularly Australia’s relationship with China — and in the face of the instability of her own political party.
Of the foreign policy initiatives that came to fruition during her period as foreign minister, the one with potentially the farthest reach for Australia’s future could be the New Colombo Plan. The ongoing scheme is aimed at improving Australia’s knowledge of the Indo-Pacific region and facilitating greater people-to-people links by supporting undergraduate students to study and undertake internships throughout Australia.
The title of the scheme is derived from a previous foreign policy initiative by the Australian government. In the period following World War II, Australia was having to significantly readjust its foreign policy. The United Kingdom was no longer going to be an Asian power, making the realities of Australia’s geography a more pronounced phenomenon. The country could no longer see itself as simply a European outpost; it needed to find a way of engaging with its region in a more understanding manner. This necessity became more pronounced as decolonization in the region progressed, with Asian countries taking control of their own affairs.
One of the initiatives from this period to enhance Australia’s regional engagement was the creation of the Colombo Plan in 1951. Initially created as an aid and development program, its centerpiece was the sponsorship of Asian students to study in Australia. By the 1980s, over 20,000 students had utilized the program. The idea was that Asian students would return to their home countries upon completing their studies and would enter the political and professional classes with a sympathetic view of Australia, and would provide the requisite connections for Australia’s political, bureaucratic and trade relations.
Although this scheme looked very much like a one-way street, it was a level of engagement unbeknownst to Australia at the time, and can even be viewed as playing an important role in the ending of the White Australia Policy. It also paved the way for the country’s modern education industry. Australia is now one of the world’s primary destinations for foreign students to study, with Asian students dominating the numbers that come to its universities (China, India, Nepal, Malaysia, and Vietnam being the top five sources).
The New Colombo Plan, however, is an attempt to enhance the other side of this coin, to push Australian students out into Asia, improve the country’s Asian literacy, and increase its Asia capability. Yet for this to occur the program needs to become an institution, with long-stay student education in the region a norm rather than something exceptional. This may mean expanding the program’s scholarship offerings, and raising the current cap on student mobility grants. A program that is too exclusive will struggle to achieve its primary purpose of enhancing a broader Asian literacy among the country’s people.
Complementary to the New Colombo Plan would be a renewed push for the learning of Asian languages in Australian schools. The economic dominance of the United States has facilitated English becoming the global lingua franca, and Australia has been fortunate enough to be able to piggyback on this phenomenon. An antipathy toward language learning is still very much in the mold of the original Colombo Plan, with Asia coming to Australia, rather than Australia going to Asia. The Labor Party has pledged to rectify this problem, should they come to power in the May election.
Despite 11 of the country’s 15 largest trading partners being in the Indo-Pacific region, and a diverse and growing population of Asian-Australians, the country still grapples with the question of its place in Asia. The latest issue of the Australian Foreign Affairs magazine is titled “Are We Asian Yet?” with essays exploring the balance between the country’s predominant European heritage, shifting population make-up, and the realities of its geography.
The New Colombo Plan is a positive initiative that Bishop can be rightly proud of developing during her time as Australia’s foreign minister. Yet as a program focused on the country’s university students it can still only be seen as a vanguard toward a broader engagement with the region. The program’s true success will come when wider Australia society begins to feel a greater affinity with Asia. And that’s something that seems perpetually on the horizon.