Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced new policy for Australia’s engagement with Asia in the much-anticipated release of the Australia in the Asian Century white paper.
Launching the policy, Julia Gillard said the study of Asian languages was a key priority for enhancing Australia’s future engagement with the region.
“Asia will become home to most of the world’s middle class by as early as 2025,” Ms Gillard said.
“Not only becoming the world’s largest producer of goods and services — becoming the largest consumer of them.”
Ms Gillard said success for an open Australia in a middle class Asia “starts in the classrooms, training centres and lecture theatres of our nation.”
The paper covers five key objectives of: economic strength; strong minds (through education and skills); expanding and integrating regional markets (including building the presence of Australian firms in those markets); deep and broad relationships with the region at all levels; and regional security.
Initial policy steps will include ensuring all Australian schools engage with at least one school in Asia to support the teaching of a priority Asian language – Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Hindi or Indonesian. Policy also includes implementing the ‘Australian Curriculum’ and its cross-curriculum priority of ‘Asia and Australia’s engagement in Asia’ under the National Plan for School Improvement.
Australia will provide 12,000 Australia Awards to Asian nations over the next five years, to better promote people-to-people links between Australia and the region.
Under the plan, the government will also appoint a Jakarta-based Ambassador to ASEAN and open a full embassy in Ulaanbaatar and consulates in Shenyang, Phuket and in eastern Indonesia.
Increasing tourism numbers from Asia, specifically China, has also been earmarked, with plans to facilitate easier visa processing for low-risk visitors through longer period and multiple entry visas and greater use of online visas. The government plans to build on a trial of streamlined visa processing for independent Chinese tourists and will continue to promote Australia as a preferred destination across the region.
The paper also sets a goal of ensuring one-third of board members of Australia’s top 200 publicly listed companies and Commonwealth bodies have deep experience and knowledge of Asia.
While the white paper has been welcomed by Australian business groups across the region, it has come under criticism for its lack of detail and failure to cite financial sourcing for key aspects of the report.
The Australia China Business Council said the paper was ambitious but would need to be matched by government performance to be effective.
Australia China Business Council national president, Frank Tudor said the paper recognized Australia’s need to move beyond resources to aggressively tapping into the market for services of all kinds represented by the emerging mobile Chinese middle class.
Mr Tudor said the government would need to implement rigorous performance benchmarks if the Asian Century was to amount to more than rhetoric.
“I urge the Prime Minister to establish an Asian Century Engagement Panel to identify priorities, focus on implementation, monitor progress and continue to adapt the government’s response to the changing fundamentals in our region,” he said.
Mr. Tudor congratulated the government for its introduction of a $6 million grants scheme for business organisations to boost Australian business engagement in Asia.
“For too long, organisations such as ACBC have worked to increase Australia’s footprint in emerging markets with absolutely no government funding. Notwithstanding our limited resources, we have provided real value to both governments and businesses through the strength of our networks and our collective experience of the region – this initiative will yield real value to the taxpayer and we congratulate the government for introducing this exciting initiative.”
Mr. Tudor welcomed the government’s long-term ambition to establish an Australian consulate-general in Shenyang as well as other measures to increase Australia’s diplomatic representation in-market. He said an early establishment of more consulates in China would provide businesses with a beach-head from which to build relationships and develop opportunities in the Western provinces of China.
The Australian Chambers of Commerce in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong released a joint statement under the AustCham Greater China umbrella, applauding the paper’s focus on deeper engagement with Asian economies, but warned the lack of detail, direct actions and deliverables, and funding could lead to Australia’s failure to achieve its full potential in Asia.
AustCham Greater China, which represents more than 3000 corporate firms and individual members operating in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, praised the long-term nature of the plan, but noted, urgent implementation was key.
It questioned recent cuts to Austrade staffing in the region, and said it would be watching to see if the announcement was simply “a re-shuffling of chairs.”
Acknowledging and recognizing AustCham’s role and those of other existing organisations and networks already on the ground in Asia, was also welcomed.
“Clearly this is where Australia’s future is going to lie,” said AustCham Shanghai chair, Peter Arkell.
“For too long the source of information about China has been from Australia-based, less informed experts,” Mr Arkell said.
He said the paper had been well received in general by the Australian community in Shanghai especially the shifiting in orientation for Australian thinking to the Asian region.
“The test is going to be what comes out of the discussion. This is a beginning, not an end,” he said.
AustCham Greater China said it was keen to see a revived focus on achieving an Australia-China Free Trade Agreement to enable continued growth in the trade relationship, and reciprocal access for Australian businesses to invest in China.
AustCham Beijing Chair, David Olsson, said the challenge would be for business and the Australian community “to get behind it and for businesses to develop their own strategies to increase their engagement with Asia.”
“The White Paper highlights how the rise and growth of Asia presents immense opportunities for Australian companies in China. Importantly, it lays out the ground work for the way in which we can do this – on our terms,” Mr Olsson said.
Andrew Steadson, Chair of AustCham Hong Kong and Macau, said the white paper was a major catch-up exercise for Australia. He said the clock had already started ticking for Australian policy in Asia.
“We are 12 years into the so-called Asian Century and here’s a plan to position the country over the next 13 years – in order to be ready to capitalise on the remaining 75? That’s not good enough, Australians in Asia know the country has to start making some bold moves,” he said.
However he applauded the government’s recognition that Australia’s future is hitched to its success and engagement with Asia. ■
*To view the white paper, visit: http://asiancentury.dpmc.gov.au/