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Australia in the Asian Century White Paper: a generational reboot

By Donna Weeks - posted Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Gillard Government's much-anticipated white paper on Australia's engagement with the Asian region was released on Sunday at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. Australia's diminishing pool of Asia specialists is simultaneously hopeful and sceptical. A few of the old hands around are silently ruminating on white papers past while others eagerly anticipate the promise of a whole-of-government response to a multi-faceted document which sketches out our future in the region to 2025. Instead of starting afresh, we would do well to view this White Paper as a statement which consolidates our past with Asia while stepping up to a more nuanced approach.

Media coverage since its release has focussed on the economic and trade aspects as well as the need to learn some of the languages of the region, notably Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese and Korean. The languages and the economy have been inextricably linked. It is a common theme in Australia's engagement with Asia, we tend to see the region as a market place to buy and sell our commodities and our policies follow. If we continue to approach Asia in this way, we will continue to churn out white papers which will promise much but deliver little.

This White Paper does cover more detail than the predominant commentary would suggest. There is a conscious effort to convey the depth and breadth of relationships and building stronger security options in the region. There is a reiteration of the importance of people-to-people contact. Out of the spotlight of white papers, it serves us well to acknowledge that this 'sudden emergence' of the Asian century has been, in fact, a century (or more) in the making.


In the immediacy of seeking economic fulfilment, it can be easy to overlook broader historical trends. This white paper announcement coincides with the 40th anniversary of normalisation of relations with mainland China. The rhetoric then argued for closer, more complex relations. In 1976, Australia and Japan signed a basic treaty of friendship and cooperation which aimed to soften the sharp edges of the predominantly economic relationship. That relationship had gained economic primacy through the 1960s and 1970s on the back of resources trade. In 1989, Professor Ross Garnaut focussed clearly on the economic potential and markets in Northeast Asia, introducing the promise of South Korea to the Australian consciousness in the way China and Japan had been introduced half a generation earlier. Prime Minister Paul Keating during his term made much of an Asian turning point and notwithstanding the scepticism surrounding the sudden conversion of the Francophile, he did energise APEC through a stronger leaders' forum.

We can go back further in our history when we were less self-conscious about our interaction. The signing of a trade agreement between Japan and Australia in 1957 where wartime enmity was slowly giving way to a strained mateship in a largely pragmatic recognition of where Australia's future was headed. We can go further back, to the 19th century, where Japanese intellectuals espoused the value of Australia to the region for the 'Pacific Century', yes-the turn of the 20th century.

The brief history lesson is not to diminish the significance of the latest white paper. Rather, as noted above, it is better to see this white paper as a consolidation of a deep foundation of Asian engagement stretching back over a century, not stepping out anew.

When introducing students to the study of the region I like to offer a couple of anecdotes. The first is that 30 years ago, as an undergraduate, we debated the proposition that 'Australia is a part of Asia'. Naturally, as a group of Asian studies students, we figured the answer, in the affirmative, was a 'no-brainer'. But thirty years seems a long time to keep revisiting a debate.

The second anecdote is a little more personal. I tell students that I was one of 300 or so Year 8 students introduced to Japanese language in Queensland in the mid 1970s. There were about ten schools across Queensland at the time doing the same, so roughly 3000 new students to the language started their journey. Using my school as an example, by Year 12 we had a class of six. Of those six only one went on to university to study the language, gain a few qualifications and become reasonably fluent. Once we multiply that across Queensland and the rest of the country, and add to that the fact that Japanese and other Asian languages have become a well-established element of school curricula in the intervening 35 years, we end up with quite a mind-boggling number of potential 'Asia-literate' people. Our reality of course is that only the pro-rata equivalent of that 1/300 go on to make a career of it. Imagine if we had capitalised on all the energy and commitment all those years ago.

Still, I always aim to be more hopeful than sceptical. I am passing into 'old-hand' status now and I will seek to capitalise on this momentum while I can, as I did in 1989 and as I benefited from in the 1970s. We are now actually more deeply embedded in the Asian region than perhaps even the self-conscious commentary of the past couple of days might realise. Prime Minister Gillard's passion for education over foreign affairs is self-proclaimed. Perhaps her educational imperatives can override the economic pragmatism of previous Asian endeavours and we can build on the momentum of Asian centuries past to embrace Asian centuries of the future.

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About the Author

Dr Donna Weeks is a lecturer in Japanese Studies and International Relations at the University of the Sunshine Coast. She tweets as @psephy.

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