Sunday, December 16, 2012

Two weeks on: the Asian Century still matters, doesn’t it?

*This post first appeared on OnLine Opinion in November 2012. 

Cultivating longevity

The federal government’s White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century received a good deal of media coverage, perhaps even longer than the average white paper. Reactions fell broadly into two categories: those of the Asian Studies professionals who might appear a little jaded by the recycling of some longstanding ideas but nonetheless welcomed the paper’s promise, as they always do; and the others who saw the White Paper as a mechanism to impose unwanted strictures on their hitherto satisfactory approach to Asian markets.

Among the latter were those who sought to quantify the inevitable hurdles—quoting US CIA tables, for example, of the many more hours it takes to ‘learn’ ideograph-based Asian languages over ‘easier’ European languages. One read of 2200 hours versus 700 hours as if that were to be the primary determinant of successful language learning. It’s not of course. Passion, desire and interest in the language, people and culture make the ‘hours’ almost negligible. When asked to estimate the hours I’ve spent learning, or the number of Chinese characters I know, I have to answer ‘I don’t know’. It is there, I wanted to know, I just did it.

How many hours does it take to learn a musical instrument? Learn to drive a car? You can line up two people who have expended the same number of hours learning a skill and still have different capabilities. I’ve probably spent more hours swimming in my lifetime than our youngest Olympic swimmers, but I’ll never be an Olympic swimmer. The quantification of hours isn’t going to discourage those who have a mindset to achieve.

There was a somewhat surprising reaction too from the business community, resisting the expectation that a certain proportion of board members should, in time, have Asian in-country experience. On that score, resistance is almost useless I expect. More people are gaining experience in Asia and so that proportion should grow naturally.
These sorts of reactions seem petty in comparison with the visionary leap that governments sometimes feel they need to undertake. But government visions have political imperatives, and white papers can fulfil that function. Is it a cynical reprise to suggest that a visionary leap might be underpinned by political imperatives? Probably not, however…

The thought came to me as the media bandwagon moved on to cover two pivotal international events: the US presidential election and the change of leadership in China. As an international relations specialist, understanding Australia’s relations with China and the US and China’s relations with the US, is part of what I do. What struck me was the way the media shifted to discussing the relationships, or the ‘transition’ as the Fairfax press described it. After a week of overly self-conscious angst about ‘how’ we should be a part of Asia, we just got on with dealing with the events as they unfolded.

There is an ambiguity here which periodic white papers are not going to solve. I think the scope and ambition of the white papers overwhelm the general public in the first instance and some of the initial reaction we have seen reflects that. In time, that settles, and our approach to Asia returns to the status quo. Out of the white paper spotlight, we actually have a rather robust degree of ‘Asia-literacy’, people in the public and private sector whose day-to-day engagement is amongst the richest in the world.

On reflection, perhaps the smart way for governments to cultivate longevity in an Asian century is not by drawing attention to it via an anxiously anticipated White Paper. It has, as we have seen, really encouraged the naysayers, the reactionaries who say the mountain is too high to climb. Governments could instead simply normalise the way we approach Asia, the ways in which we engage with the region. It is political, it is cultural, it is strategic, it is educational. It does not happen by quantifying hours or putting up barriers of inconvenience.

It might also be something as simple as recognising that Australia is but one country in a region of diverse societies and cultures which actually resist the simple ‘Asian’ nomenclature. We then might feel more comfortable with engaging with neighbours, rather than masses en bloc.