The National Forum

The Asialink Asia Society National Forum, Mapping our future in the Asian Century, brought together 130 specialists and stakeholders from business, the arts, government, academia and the health and development areas in Parliament House on 25 May 2010.

The Prime Minister, the Hon Kevin Rudd, and Opposition Leader, the Hon Tony Abbott, delivered major speeches, and the High Commissioner for India and the Ambassadors for China, Indonesia, Japan and the Republic of Korea participated in a panel discussion with Professor Tony Milner.

The Forum was unusual in covering so many aspects of Australia-Asia relations. This gave the opportunity for cross-referencing between sectors, and building relationships that may be vital in furthering Australia’s effective engagement with the Asian region.

Forum discussion focused on what the “Asian century” means in geo-strategic, economic and cultural terms and what this means for Australia.

Participants started a stock-take or a health check on how we're going on Asia engagement.

The annual PricewaterhouseCoopers Melbourne Institute Asialink Index, which covers progress in Australia’s Asian engagement in the areas of trade, investment, education, tourism, migration, research and business development, and humanitarian assistance shows that engagement is four times what it was 20 years ago.

But the Forum raised some concerns including:
  • by international standards, Australia performs poorly in the way we project ourselves in the region (soft power)
  • very few Australians study in Asia
  • investment, unlike trade, is an underdeveloped area of Australian economic engagement
  • Australia’s involvement in the Arts of the region is 'sporadic and scattergun' and we are therefore largely excluded from the extraordinary cultural dynamism of contemporary Asia
  • the study of Asian languages and Asian countries is faring very badly in Australia (even compared to a generation ago), despite the government’s stress on the need for “Asia literacy”
  • there is still a lack of broad Asia skills in Australian businesses from boardroom to staff
A significant positive feature of the discussion was the suggestion of a paradigm shift, at least at the leadership level represented at the Forum. In thinking about how Australia might achieve a more effective engagement, in reflecting on what it really means to become a player in the regional community, Forum participants stressed the need for much more collaborative work, more partnerships.

This emphasis was present in the Arts community and in the health area; in regional (including middle power) cooperation in defence; in the need for a deeper investment in relationships in business, in forging people to people links between our young people, and in the aim to develop a regional research community.

Has there been a shift in our thinking?  Are we seeing our relationships in the Asian region less through the prism of the US Alliance or the idea of Australia as primarily the communicator of global/ Western values (and often aid), and increasingly as a more independent Australia engaged in reciprocal and creative collaborations in multiple fields?

The most serious anxiety at the meeting concerned the danger of the Australian community not being prepared for the “Asian century”. It is a concern about “Asia literacy”, but not only within the education system. How far is the Australian community prepared for living in a region where the United States influence might be substantially reduced, where new demands may be placed on our defence capacities, where the English language might cease to be the main language of diplomacy and business?

There was a concern to make sure that Australian leadership does not move too far out in front of the Australian community in thinking about what future Asian engagement may entail. This led to a call for a national conversation to address this issue, a conversation that would need to consider not just the broad dimensions of what the “Asian century” might bring, but also help the community to think about such concrete issues like our often xenophobic responses to international investment.

An advantage of a national conversation would be to make sure that the different sectors in Australia-Asia engagement keep in touch with one another, and see possible connections in the problems we encounter.

The Forum also identified the need for a second type of national conversation: one based on the strong need to build our public diplomacy efforts in the Asian region. Opinion surveys in Asian countries and Australia underline the problems existing at the level of people-to-people links, and confirm the urgency of this proposal.

It was stressed that our relations in the region are becoming increasingly complex, and that this requires greater resources to advance Australian interests in the soft power area. This is not merely a matter of funding: at present we lack the necessary skills base.

Here, as in so many areas of discussion, the Forum confronted the crisis of “Asia literacy”. The fear, expressed repeatedly, is that we are really slipping backward and at a time when the task of preparing for Australia’s Asian future is dramatically more urgent than ever before.

Report by Professor Tony Milner and Jenny McGregor