Our national failure to equip ourselves for Asia

Nov 13, 2023
Blue and White globe, Arabia, Asia, India, China, Japan, Indonesia, Australia.

Very few of the people briefing Anthony Albanese have much knowledge or experience of Asia. Many are Austral Americans as Paul Keating rightly calls them.

In the briefing I prepared for PM Albanese’s visit to China I said

Australian and Chinese histories, cultures and systems of government are different, so we must learn about each other. If we don’t, we will make the same mistakes again and again. As a settler society we cling to our history with the UK, Europe and now the US. We are fearful of our geography, where we live. We have failed so far to reconcile our history and geography.

We remain reluctant to embrace our Asian region.

We need to be much more Asia literate. Unfortunately, there has been a dramatic reduction in our learning about Asia in our schools, universities, business, and the media.

Our learning retreat from Asia has become a rout.  By almost any test we fail in our learning and understanding of Asia and particularly China.

Very few of the people briefing Anthony Albanese have much knowledge or experience of Asia. Many are Austral Americans as Paul Keating rightly calls them.

With a lull in the hostility between Australia and China we have an opportunity to promote cultural understanding and personal links. Much remains to be done.

Eleven years ago, I gave the speech below. I was then pessimistic about our understanding of Asia. The situation has got markedly worse since then, writ large in the unremitting attacks on China stemming from ignorance and parochialism, particularly in our White Man’s Media.

We are so used to being told and doing what Washington wants that we find it hard to make up our own mind on what is in our national interest. And our failure to think for ourselves is going to become even more critical with a new player in our region, China which is growing dramatically in influence. There is no long-term future for us in our region as the proxy or spear carrier for the US.

The current hysterical anti-Chinese rhetoric in Australia is not so surprising. Our media and business sectors are seriously ignorant of our region.

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. 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 demonise asylum seekers is really a proxy for a campaign on race.
  • The campaign against Chinese investment, is really a replay of the hostility to Japanese investment 30 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 April 7, 1988); “A single piece of seamless fabric — companies interwoven with government” (SMH May 23, 1987); “Japan’s 20 biggest companies could buy the entire state of NSW using just one year’s profits” (SMH May 23 1987). This is despite the fact that Japan and more recently China has 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 past 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 France, but it is not much help in our region.
  • The Australian 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 trivial and legacy 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 website by Tony Abbott. Access to it has not been restored under the Albanese government.

Why did we go on smoko?

  • Change is always painful and the end of White Australia particularly with the Indo-Chinese program during the Fraser period, followed by the Hawke government’s economic restructuring was unsettling and painful for many. And 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 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. 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 or their staff. They appoint people like themselves.

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 experience in Asia.

Far too many Australian businesses opportunistically see Asia as customers of opportunity rather than 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. The tide of serious interest in Asia by our large corporations is at a very low ebb.

  • 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 1990s.
  • 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/women, 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 the short-term. 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 South-East 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 asylum boats. Interest is periodically sparked and there is little follow through.

Public sector
The Australian public service, particularly the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (including Austrade), has done much better than the business sector. But it is nowhere near good enough. Our diplomatic skills are in serious decline and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is sidelined in favour of defence and ‘intelligence’ (five eyes) interests.

Donald Horne in the 1960s said that “Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck”. That is 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.

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

This is an updated repost from Oct 24, 2021, based on a speech delivered to the Asian Studies Association of Australia on July 13, 2012.

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