Nov 012012

This post is one of the series of articles on the Australia in the Asian Century report. An initial overview of the report is at Australian Hubris in the Asian Century.

The third Chapter of the Australia in the Asian Century report, “Australia in Asia” attempts to define the role the country currently plays in the region. In some ways this is the most constructive part of the paper in that it describes the lost opportunities of the last 25 years.

Much of the early part of the chapter traces the development of Australia’s engagement with Asia after World War II; Chifley’s post war efforts with the United Nations, Menzies’ engagement with Japan, Whitlam’s going to China, Fraser’s opening to Vietnamese immigration and Hawke’s work on building the APEC agreement are all noted.

Again are the major wars that also formed Australia’s current position in East Asia – World War II, the Malayan Emergency, the Korean and Vietnamese wars – are barely mentioned. This trivialises some of the major influences in today’s complex tapestry of relationships

Of Australia’s closest Asian neighbour, the fall of Sukarno gets a brief nod but Suharto’s removal, the rise of Indonesian democracy and East Timor are all removed from the narrative. There is also no mention of other internal dislocations like the Cultural Revolution or the Indian Partition, all which still have echos today.

In the introduction the Colombo Plan gets a mention and it’s worth reflecting upon its effects.

When I worked in Bangkok in the early 1990s there were a number of business leaders who had been educated in Australia under Colombo Plan scholarships.

That investment by Australia paid dividends through the 1980s and 90s as many of those scholarship students were ardent supporters of Australian businesses and government.

One wonders how today’s students who’ve been treated as milk cows by Australian governments and “seats on bums” to education institutions will feel about the country when they enter business and political leadership positions over the next decade?

The examples of Australian business engagement in Asia are interesting – Blundstone’s is a straight out manufacturing outsourcing story which doesn’t really describe anything not being done by thousands of other businesses while Tangalooma Island Resort is a light of hope in the distressed Australian tourism industry.

A notable omission is how digital media, apps developers and service businesses are faring in Asia. There are many good case studies in those sectors but the writers seem to be, once again, fixated on the trade patterns of the 1980s and 90s rather than success stories in new fields and emerging technologies.

Generally though the description of the Australian economy is again more of the same; a combination of self congratulations on having a government AAA credit rating, hubris over avoiding a GFC induced recession and stating how the services sector has risen to replace the manufacturing that’s been outsourced by companies like Blundstone.

Overall Chapter Three of the Australia in the Asian Century report illustrates the opportunities missed in the last 25 years. Had this report been written twenty years ago it could have forecast a booming relationship in the services and advanced manufacturing sectors. It almost certainly would have included an observation that the days of the Australian economy depending upon minerals exports is over.

What a difference a couple of decades make.

The engagement of Australia with Asia concludes with a look at the changes to the nation’s immigration intakes and demographic composition. This point is, quite rightly, identified as an area of opportunity.

Having Thai restaurants in every suburb and Indian doctors in most country town isn’t really taking advantage of the opportunities presented by having a diverse population and workforce. Chapter Four attempts to look at how these factors, and others, can help Australia’s engagement with the Asian economies.

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