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Australia unveils new policy for engagement with Asia

Updated On: Oct 30, 2012

Australia has released a white paper calling for deeper engagement with Asia, due to the region's rise. The paper outlines 25 policy objectives for the country to achieve by 2025, creating deeper ties with China and the rest of Asia. "Whatever else this century brings, it will bring Asia's return to global leadership, Asia's rise. This is not only unstoppable, it is gathering pace," said Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

25 Objectives

Chief among the policy goals are that every Australian child will learn an Asian language, in particular Mandarin, Japanese, Indonesian or Hindi, and Asian culture will be part of the regular curriculum.

"Children in kindergarten now will graduate from high school with a sound working knowledge of Asia," Ms. Gillard said at the Lowy Institute in Sydney where she unveiled the white paper.

While the Australian economy has ridden high on the back of the mining boom and commodity sales to Asia, Ms. Gillard said the next economic wave will be pushed by the burgeoning Asian middle classes. The 25 objectives also include goals to boost Australia’s agricultural productivity and improve its universities to meet regional demand from its Asian neighbours.

The Gillard government will create a new ministry of Asian Century Policy to drive the reforms across education, infrastructure, tax and regulatory reform.

Ms. Gillard said about one-third of the Australian economy will be tied to Asia in the future, up from 25% in 2011. The white paper notes that Australia will seek to stay competitive by abandoning its historic fear of low Asian wages and by becoming a "higher skill, higher wage economy with a fair, multicultural and cohesive society and a growing population."

Implications for the US

Ms. Gillard's government has been previously criticised for deferring to the United States, but the paper focuses on relationships with others in the region.

"We have an ally in Washington -- respect in Beijing -- and more, an open door in Jakarta and Delhi, Tokyo and Seoul," Ms. Gillard said.

"We in this paper are focusing on the huge economic transformations happening in our region. We are not focusing on the mature economy of the United States," she later told a media conference.

Australia-Centric?

While many Asian observers have welcomed the announcement, critics have noted that the notion of Australia seizing economic opportunities in dealing with Asia is hardly a surprise.

However, much of the paper is written from the perspective of how Australia will benefit from closer ties with Asia, such as attracting investment, students and skilled workers, rather than how Australia can benefit the region.

Other Criticisms

Opposition party members have also expressed broad support for deeper economic and social engagement with Asia, but sceptical it can be delivered.

"It is full of laudable goals but not very many specific initiatives and certainly no commitment of money to any of them," said opposition leader Tony Abbott, commenting on the paper.

The director of the Asian Studies Program at the University of Sydney, Adrian Vickers, welcomed the government's new educational goals - but said it comes a bit late. "The Asian Century is already well underway. Shouldn't we have been planning for that quite a while ago?" he said.

Professor Vickers said there is a lack of money and no resources to implement the white paper properly, particularly in language education.

A parliamentary committee has also raised questions about whether Australia's diplomatic network is up to the job, as the Department of Foreign Affairs has been under-funded for the past 30 years.

However, Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr claims extra funding for DFAT would be welcome but he is confident Australian diplomats are already up to the task.

"You've got our biggest embassy in Jakarta. You've got successful Australian diplomacy in East Timor, in Myanmar and Mongolia, and among the 10 ASEAN nations," Mr. Carr said. "In the last few weeks we had visits from Singapore, from Korea, Myanmar, Thailand, The Philippines, Japan; the ASEAN secretary general. Our diplomacy is moving ahead very strongly."

Official Website: Australia in the Asian Century [Australian Government, 28 Oct 2012]

Report: Gillard: Australia must embrace 'Asian Century' [CNN, 29 Oct 2012

Report: Questions over white paper implementation [Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 30 Oct 2012]

Analysis: White paper: ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ or lost in Asia? [Jakarta Post, 30 Oct 2012]