JOHN MENADUE. With the rise of China our failures in Asia are even more serious.

We are so used to being conditioned ,told  and doing what Washington wants that we find it hard to make up our own mind on what is in our national interest in our own region. And our failure to think for ourselves is going to become even more critical with a new powerful  player in our region, China.  For the first time in our history we will have a regional power that will become more powerful than our outside protector, the US. China is already a larger economy.

The current hysterical anti Chinese rhetoric in Australia is not surprising. Our media and business sector are seriously ignorant of our region .And we all are.

We will not find ‘security within our region’ as Paul Keating put it without knowing Asia much better. We are over informed and seduced by American power and influence but for most Australians, Asia is a closed book.

Since our settlement as a small, remote ‘white’ English speaking community, we have been afraid of Asia and its large populations. We have clung to remote global powers for protection – Britain and now the United States. Some are working to find a way out of this fear of Asia, but our fear keeps raising its head and is easily exploited by opportunists.

  • We have broken the back of White Australia, but it keeps coming back, particularly since the time of John Howard and Pauline Hanson. Tony Abbott’s and Scott Morrison’s campaign to demonize asylum seekers is really a proxy for a campaign on race.  Donald Trump sings from the same racist inspired hymn sheet.
  • The  current campaign against Chinese interests and investment lead by our security agencies, is really a replay of the hostility to  Japan and Japanese investment thirty years ago. In the 1980s our media was full of hostility to Japanese investment –‘the local community begins to feel Japanese are not playing fair and square’ (AFR 7 April 1988); ‘a single piece of seamless fabric – companies interwoven with government’ (SMH 23 May 1987); ‘Japan’s 20 biggest companies could buy the entire state of NSW using just one year’s profits’ (SMH 23 May 1987). This is despite the fact that Japan and more recently China have a quite small proportion of the stock of foreign direct investment in Australia.

Gone on Smoko

  • It seems counter-intuitive when one considers the Asian presence – students, visitors and trade. But we are probably less Asia-ready than we were 20 years ago.
  • In the 1980s and early 1990s at the time of the Garnaut Report we were making progress in such areas as Asian language learning, media interest in Asia and cultural exchanges, but we have been ‘on smoko’ for the last 20 years.
    • Asian language learning and education funding at university are in relative decline.
    • The national policy on Asian languages adopted by the Hawke Government and COAG has run into the sand.
    • Most Asian language learning is in crisis. French language learning is more popular. It may help tourists reading menus in Paris but it is not much help in our region.
    • The Australia media is still embedded in our historical relationships with the UK, and the US. News items from Asia tend to be the weird, the funny and the menacing. Aussies in strife in Asia are a case of perpetual indulgence, particularly our drug runners in Bali.
    • The ABC does it better than other media, but it is still focussed on unimportant issues in London and New York  although they may be important for US and UK readers. But we are not an island moored off London and New York.
    • Most of our reporting of Europe comes out of the UK accompanied by the usual English bias and invective towards Europe.
    • The Henry report on Australia and the Asian Century was expunged from the Prime Minister and Cabinet web site by Tony Abbott.

Why did we go on smoko?

  • Change is always painful and the end of White Australia particularly with the Indochinese program during the Fraser period, followed by the Hawke Government’s economic restructuring was unsettling and painful for many. And Paul Keating was no slouch either on change.  He became a true believer in Asia almost overnight. It was full throttle, a Defence Treaty with Indonesia and an Australian Republic to signify that our future was no longer with a British monarch. In retrospect, we didn’t manage the change well enough.
  • An unsettled community provided an opportunity for John Howard to reassure us that under his guidance we could be ‘relaxed and comfortable’ again. Fear of Asia was engendered with dog whistling about Asian numbers and then boat arrivals. John Howard was the big interruption in the process of Asian involvement and Asian literacy, although he tried to mend his ways in his later years as PM, particularly in relations with China.

But there is not only media failure. Our business sector has also failed us.

The business sector’s failure to skill itself for Asia has been a major barrier to developing Australia’s potential in the region and improving productivity in this country – something which the Business Council tells us about repeatedly. Business has not looked at its own performance. –getting its own house in order.

I don’t think there is a Chair, Director or CEO of any of our top 200 companies who can fluently speak any of the languages of Asia. They show little interest in up skilling themselves. It is those awful unions that are to blame.

This lack of knowledge and understanding of Asia in corporations has meant that university graduates with Asian skills have not found the employment opportunities they hoped for. On the employment front, many of them ran into a dead end.  In the 1990s I knew and encouraged many Australian young people who had acquired Asian skills. Unfortunately, they had to go offshore for work for example to Hong Kong or Japan, and work for multinational companies. What a loss! Australian employers just didn’t get it and the Australian taxpayer footed the bill.

Julie Bishop’s commendable New Colombo plan is likely to face similar problems with Australian companies showing little interest in employing young Australians as they return from their Colombo Plan experience in Asia.

Far too many Australian businesses opportunistically see Asia as customers of opportunity rather than long term partners. In the long-term trade and investment is about relationships of trust and understanding. That can’t be done through an intermediary or an interpreter. Serious interest in Asia by our large corporations is a disgrace.

  • Survey after survey of Australian business show that  most Australian businesses operating in Australia have little board and senior management experience of Asia and/or Asian skills or languages. The closest some Australian business executives get to Asia is the Rugby Sevens in Hong Kong. There are now tens of thousands of Australian born citizens of Asian descent at our universities. These Australian-born young people are more likely to be recruited for their good grades and work ethic rather than their cultural and language skills. They may just drift off as they did in the 1990’s.
  • It is obviously too late for Chairs, Directors and CEOs to acquire Asian language skills, but it is not at all clear that they are recruiting executives for the future with the necessary skills for Asia. It is hard to break into the cosy directors’ club. That club need a drastic shake up.
  • Maybe we don’t need an Asian language or indeed much business sophistication to dig up and sell iron ore and coal to very willing buyers, but we certainly do to sell wine, elaborately transformed manufactures and services, particularly tourism.
  • Tourism from Asia has boomed but we don’t get enough repeat business. We skip from one new market to another – first Japan, then Korea and now China.  The Australian Tourist Commission spends a lot of money on marketing extravaganzas like Crocodile Dundee and Oprah Winfrey when it should be looking to improve the product. Too often the non-English speaking tour groups float around in Australia in a cocoon run by their own countrymen, shielded from Australians who should be employed to service them and help them with an enjoyable Australian experience.
  • Success in Asia requires long-term commitment but the remuneration packages and the demands of shareholders are linked to short-term returns. Corporate governance in Australia is failing to equip us for the Asian century.
  • Australian business people remain ‘male, stale and pale’ with the same  limited life experience and interest as the people they recruit.

China and the US – running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.

As Malcolm Fraser pointed out very succinctly in his Whitlam Oration in 2012 ‘Unconditional support (for the US) diminishes our influence throughout East and Southeast Asia’.  Telling the Chinese that they are our most valued trading partner while blocking their investments and accepting US Marines in Darwin to contain their influence is not sustainable. It is quite bizarre and quite contrary to developing sound relations with China that we think that we can “run with the hares and hunt with the hounds” like this. It will inevitably catch up with us.  

Diplomatic Initiatives

Diplomacy is about persuasion and the most effective approach to persuading someone else and gaining their cooperation is through offering an idea that satisfies their own interests without seriously prejudicing our own. There are very few people in Australia who have the faintest idea what, for example, Indonesia’s interests may be. When is the last time we heard a minister, politician or business leader talking about Indonesia in these terms? Indonesia is making great strides . Our portrayal of Indonesia is invariably about cattle, Australian drug runners in Bali and the crews of asylum boats.

Public Sector

The Australian Public Service, particularly DFAT and including Austrade, has done much better than the business sector. But it is nowhere good enough.

Conclusion

Donald Horne in the 1960s said that ‘Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck’.  That is quite severe but still true. And most true of our businesses and media today.

The key is for Australia to be open…open to new people, new investment, new trade, new languages and new ideas. And stop deferring to Washington on almost all major issues.

There is a major new player in town that is not going away.

We are both enriched and trapped by our Anglo-Celtic culture.

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7 Responses to JOHN MENADUE. With the rise of China our failures in Asia are even more serious.

  1. Tim Beal says:

    These issues are replicated, with obvious variation, across the Tasman

    You might find our book
    China, New Zealand, and the Complexities of Globalization

    of interest, especially the discussion about the tension between the concepts of the Golden Fleece and the Yellow Peril

    We don’t go very much into geopolitical issues, etc. but again there are parallels with Australia

  2. Ian Hughes says:

    Hi John,

    Thank you for an outstanding article. I have had the privilege and joy to live in 5 Asian countries before returning to Oz. My first stint was during Pauline Hanson’s Mk 1 period when I had to constantly defend Australia against the criticism of Australian racism towards Asians. It was embarrassing, frankly.

    Fast forward to today and little has changed, sadly. We remain beholden to the US and chose to reduce our presence, aid and influence in Asia, for which China was only too happy to step in. Pauline Hanson Mk 2 continues the same tired, racist rhetoric. Our attitude is remarkable given that our Asian immigrants (just like those from Europe) contribute so much to our society.

    I expect China to replace US as the world’s dominant nation (perhaps not in my lifetime, I’m 64) but certainly during the life of my 2 teenage boys. This is why they both learn Mandarin.

    Until we embrace the idea of “there is only one race – the human race” we will forever be seen as a xenophobic and racist nation and that is to our absolute detriment.

  3. martin smith says:

    Australia’s news and entertainment media is heavily influenced, contaminated by and employs so much direct material from America that we, the audience, forget the 3 Billion people on our door step. We are acting like a grocery shop refusing to serve people from other postcodes.
    One strategy may be to engage more on a cultural/arts level to learn from and thus understand our neighbours, we are not being fed enough current news, entertainment from Asian countries in our media. The odd cultural visits have a short span of interest on a bad news day. It’s the old story, 3 people are shot in America and its on the news for 3-4 days. A hundred people in an Asian country are killed and its off the news 1 ½ days later.
    As far as Asian investment in Australia goes perhaps we could employ similar laws that some Asian countries have regarding land ownership rather than falling back on racial scare tactics.

  4. Albert Haran says:

    If education made you think,they would not educate us.
    If voting changed the system they would not let us vote.
    So they give us education and let us vote.
    Then we don’t think, but we vote.
    Percievied immediate self interest comes to the fore, vote for me you will be rewarded.
    Forward thinking is non existent and we as a cargo cult wait for the next delivery .
    One day it will not come.
    Poor fellow my country.

  5. James O'Neill says:

    May I add a note from personal experience. For the past several years I have been professionally involved with the Belt & Road Initiative, to use its current nomenclature. There are now more than 100 countries involved, including many in what Morrison is pleased to call ‘our backyard.’ The three latest signatories are Tonga, Fiji and Samoa. Australia has refused a direct invitation from China on more than one occasion. Its mainstream media constantly repeat hoary American inspired cliches about ‘debt traps’, Chinese ‘infiltration’, ‘national security threats’ and much else.
    Two years ago I represented some Chinese interests that were willing to spend several billion dollars in upgrading the airport west of Toowoomba; a new rail line to the Brisbane port; and upgrading the port itself. There was a complete lack of interest. No rational reason was advanced, but there was an implicit fear of a ‘Chinese takeover’, although for a variety of reasons that was highly improbable to say the least. Hundreds of new jobs would have been created.
    I get the same reaction when I raise investment opportunities for Australia in helping build the infrastructure that is at the core of the BRI. Is it timidity? Is it ignorance as you suggest? Is it because of US pressure (as with the AIIB)? Most likely it is a combination of all three.
    What I do see on a daily basis is Australia retreating from its own best national interests; a timid, ignorant and compliant lackey of both outdated ideas and their vigorous perpetrators. We seem to be on track in fulfilling Lee Kwan Yew’s prophecy of nearly 40 years ago, not least for the reason advanced by Donald Horne that you quote.

  6. Our smugness is enhanced by our pattern of continuous economic growth. We fail to see the need for alternatives; why would we when we are going so well? And we (the well-off among us) fail to see that the benefits of growth are unevenly spread. The classic ‘bite on the bum’ awaits us, probably triggered by private debt crisis at home combined with bizarre US behaviour abroad – to which we are hitched.

  7. Evan Hadkins says:

    Hi John,

    Do you know people who could be part of a series on “How [Asian nation] sees itself”?

    Maybe ex-diplomats or people with business experience.

    E.g. China’s ‘century of humiliation’.

    They could add up to something of a report on what Aus needs to understand about Asia at the moment.

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