Australia’s diversity challenge

Recognising that Asia doesn’t end at China and appreciating the different cultures is key to Australian progress

Chris Freeland

The Commonwealth government’s recent Australia in the Asian Century White Paper takes a commendably broad approach to the challenges and opportunities for Australia ensuing from Asia’s rise. Two aspects are particularly welcome. First, it makes clear that Asia is more than just China, focusing as well on opportunities in Japan, India and Indonesia among others. Second, the paper emphasises that Australia’s economic engagement with Asia requires actual connections to be forged between people.

However, the paper could do much more to build on existing strategies employed by businesses within Asia.

The paper’s emphasis on the diversity of Asia is timely. Too often, coverage in the Australian press about Australia-Asia relations is overly focused on China and on resource exports to that country. The minutia of China’s economic rise receives much attention but rarely do we read about economic developments in the likes of Vietnam or South Korea.

While China remains extremely important to Australia, the business community and the country generally should not let this stop engagement with the rest of the region. In this respect, the paper is far sighted.

The paper calls for Australia to engage more with all the countries of Asia, each of which has a unique history and business culture, which requires time and effort to understand. And each of these nations, to a greater or lesser extent, has a growing middle class that is eager to engage with the outside world. In this respect, Asia offers great rewards for businesses that take the right approach.

Language and understanding Asia’s business cultures is a major focus of the paper. Lasting economic engagement, it says, requires Australians to develop personal connections with their Asian counterparts. Australians learning an Asian language is, of course, a valuable thing but in view of the authors, it is certainly not a pre-condition for meaningful business engagement with the region.

While the paper lays the groundwork for a national strategy by encouraging businesses to think more broadly about engagement with Asia, it fails to recognise fully what is already being done by businesses operating there. This means the paper reads as if suddenly Australia has woken up and realised that it belongs to Asia. The failure to mention existing business engagement also makes the prospect of engaging with Asia sound more daunting than it is. In fact, many businesses based in Australia have been engaging with Asia for a long time.

The Asian Century White Paper is an important document. It lays the groundwork for the Australian community to continue to tackle the challenges, and grasp the opportunities, inherent in Asia’s rise. Hopefully, in the months ahead, those businesses already engaged in the region will be given a platform to share their knowledge and experiences of engaging Asia, for the benefit of all Australians in the ‘Asian Century’ .