Dealing with Asia: Australia’s Need for Expertise and Awareness


In 1996 when the Coalition came into government the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister both made it clear that it was their intention to maintain the emphasis on engagement with Asia, which had been a trademark of the Keating/Evans foreign policy. But fairly soon it emerged that they would not share Keating’s evangelism about engagement. The analyses of public opinion at the election showed that Keating had moved well out in front of public opinion on Asian engagement. The Prime Minster and the Foreign Minister emphasised that looking towards Asia did not mean turning our backs on our traditional allies, not that Keating, Evans and Beazley had ever suggested it did.

Most importantly, though, the regional context which had favoured Hawke’s reform agenda and which had seemed increasingly hospitable for the Keating engagement policy changed radically for the coalition. No matter which party had been in power in Australia in 1999, the Indonesian actions in East Timor which produced the intervention would have caused a major shift in Australian attitudes and policies. Keating’s main South-East Asian partner, Soeharto, was removed. As well, the ‘economic miracle’ of the East Asian countries stalled and took the shine off the trade and investment prospects which had been a major element in the engagement policy. At home there was a reaction against what Hawke had called ‘enmeshment’ with Asia, a reaction exemplified most starkly by the emergence of Pauline Hanson and One Nation. The Prime Minister sought to placate concerns that Australia had shifted too far towards East Asia at the expense of ties with the United States and the United Kingdom. Remarks attributed to him then caused further sharp adverse reactions in the region.

Since the Bali bombing and other dangerous manifestations of extreme Islamist action there has been a rapid development of police, security and intelligence cooperation between Australia and Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and other countries in the region. This encouraged a view that the relationship with those countries had become much more benign and cooperative. The government’s prompt and substantial assistance after the tsunami of 26th December 2004, and especially the Prime Minister’s bonding with the President of Indonesia as a consequence, strengthened that perception. Moreover there was a huge sympathetic response by the Australian public to the tsunami disaster, especially as it affected Indonesia.

But more recent events have shown the fragility of aspects of Australia’s relations with Asia. The government’s hesitancy about signing on to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, especially after Japan and Korea had done so, has stimulated reservations in East Asia about Australia’s eligibility to participate in a meeting intended to be a step towards institutionalising trade and economic cooperation in the East Asian region. Then at a more emotional, public level, there is the Corby case which has reinforced unfavourable Australian impressions about Indonesia, including corruption and the administration of justice. It has also rather starkly revealed the level of popular ignorance about Indonesia in Australia. Not only that; a series of events has revealed the shallowness of Australian expertise about Indonesia – and not only about Indonesia but virtually all the countries of the region. Developments since 9/11 with the consequent emphasis on improving intelligence capacities and the desire for significantly closer cooperation with regional countries, the demand for numbers of people with language and cultural expertise to help in the tsunami relief work, the blundering of all concerned on the Australian side over the Corby case have all in different ways shown Australia to be ill-equipped for deeper, effective engagement with the countries of the region.

Prime Minister Howard has in recent times again said publicly that such engagement is the government’s objective, a message that had been obscured since the late 1990s. For example at an Asialink forum on Australia’s engagement with Asia on 13 August 2004 he said, "…we have tried to develop a greater understanding of, and sensitivity to, the historic and cultural foundations of their societies…The government has always understood the imperative of close engagement with the region." Foreign Minister Downer has spoken more often and in more detail along these lines. In conceptual terms such statements are fine. If challenged, the government points to trade agreements with regional countries, either already in place or under negotiation, to the big resource deals with China, to cooperation on intelligence and security and to increasing contacts and visits.

These are all very important and reflect proper attention to the business of government. But they do not directly address the great and growing need for Australians to understand better the countries next-door and to have the language skills and knowledge to engage with them. The case has been made many times over the last twenty or so years, but the most seminal statement remains the first comprehensive one: the Garnaut Report of 1989 commissioned by Hawke. A good deal of what it proposed or supported was achieved in the following years but progress has stalled or been reversed in some key areas, especially Asian studies and languages. Most serious though is that the enthusiasm for and commitment to engagement appears to have dissipated.

It seemed obvious in the late 80s that a major strengthening of Asian studies in Australia was a fundamental requirement for successful engagement. The Fitzgerald report proposed a comprehensive ‘National Strategy for the Study of Asia in Australia’ and was adopted by Cabinet in 1989. This was followed by John Ingleson’s report on Asia in Australian Higher Education, which argued that Asian Studies was vital to the national interest of Australia and needed to be made more attractive to students. Government support and encouragement helped in promoting these arguments in the universities and there was a great deal of discussion around the issue. Some of it was rather unproductive, like the argument about whether Australia is ‘a part of Asia’, but much of it was fruitful in terms of generating public awareness and enthusiasm in Australia for what Ingleson had called ‘Australianising’ education here by focusing it more on Asia – Australia’s part of the world.

The basic thrust of those seminal reports remains at least as valid today as it was when they were produced some sixteen years ago. The reasons for identifying the central importance of East Asia for Australia’s economic, strategic and political interests into the indefinite future have not changed. Yet we have now reached a point where essential building blocks of the engagement with Asia project are in jeopardy. A key indicator and cause for concern about the future is the decline of Asian studies. In 2002 the government axed the National Asian Languages Study in Australian Schools (NALSAS) programme, which was a K to 12 programme to set a foundation for continuing study of Asian languages by Australian students. (This had been targeted by some government members as a signal manifestation of the enthusiasm of Keating, Evans and Rudd for all things Asian). The Association of Asian Studies in Australia has produced a mass of material documenting ‘the shrinking potential for Australia’s university students to learn about the countries of Asia’. In 2002 the Association produced a substantial study, Maximizing Australia’s Asia Knowledge, which made a series of recommendations for increasing that potential. This year the Association’s Submission to the 2005-06 Federal Budget listed the following facts about that ‘shrinking potential':
– fewer than 5 per cent of university students did any study of an Asian country in 2001
– fewer than 3 per cent studied a language of Asia at any level
– languages of Asia, particularly Indonesian, are in jeopardy at some universities and Indonesian enrolments have fallen nationally by 15 per cent since 2001
– languages of high national importance, but lower student demand (e.g., Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Hindi and Urdu, Tagalog, Arabic), are increasingly seen as financially unviable by university administrators
– Asia expertise in disciplines like History and Politics is contracting not growing
– Teacher-education programs are not providing knowledge of Asia to future teachers
– Curriculum at Years 11 and 12 provides little opportunity to learn about Asia.

This is surely a litany of short-sightedness – less on the part of schools and universities (which in their changing economic circumstances have become much less able or willing to subsidise courses) than on the part of governments, parliaments and all who have an opportunity to comment on and influence public policy. We have moved some distance from the days in 1942 when my school in Sydney had the sports oval dug up for air raid shelters but virtually no-one had any knowledge of Japan or the Japanese and there was no Asian history or languages taught in schools. But we have not moved far enough, and now movement seems to have stalled. It is sad that the ‘curriculum at Years 11 and 12 provides little opportunity to learn about Asia’. There is such a wonderfully interesting resource there for students in the senior years to explore; for example, emerging nationalism in Indonesia from the 1920s through to independence, or the independence movement in the Philippines against Spain and the subsequent American colonization and its consequences. If the K to 12 programme could have been developed, by Years 11 and 12 some of the students at least would be able to read 20th century literature from our neighbouring countries.

But stating the need and calling for students to be given the opportunity to learn about Asia will not by itself effect the necessary changes. That will require leadership and foresight by governments and parliaments, including at a state level. People who themselves have no relevant personal training or background in the areas discussed will not respond easily or quickly. It will require the sort of leadership and advocacy which produced other milestones in Australia’s engagement with Asia: the Colombo Plan, R.G.Casey’s book Friends and Neighbours (written by Jim Plimsoll), the demolition of the White Australia policy, the Australian National University, and so on up to and including the seminal developments of the later 1980s.

We need to make it a natural and accepted thing for Australians to learn in school and beyond about the countries of this part of the world and their languages. That might happen eventually as a result of increasing travel, business needs, immigration and so on. But there is not much sign of it at present. Stimulation is required: by creating a climate of opinion in which it is seen as necessary and through specific incentives. One initiative which would be cost-free (at least directly) would be for the federal government to publicise a bonus of, say, up to 10 points (out of 100) for Asian language competence in the selection criteria for DFAT and other relevant Commonwealth agencies. This might encourage parents and teachers to advise students who would not otherwise have done so to take an Asian language. This is but one suggestion. I am sure The Centre for Policy Development readers may have others. Australia needs the foresight to develop the expertise and awareness to deal effectively with its neighbours in the Asian region.

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