Opinion & Commentary
No need for Asian Century panic
Millions of Australians already speak Asian languages and understand Asian cultures, thanks to our rich ethnic mix. So why the anxiety over readying Australia for the Asian Century? wonders Benjamin Herscovitch.
Preferring the company of those who questioned and criticised him, Confucius had no time for unthinking supporters.
In the Analects of Confucius, he is reported to have said of one of his supporters: "He is no help to me at all. He is pleased with everything I say."
Confucius recognised that without debate and dissent, we end up with stultifying groupthink.
Our political class needs to take heed of this Confucian lesson.
The national conversation about Australia's prospects in an Asia-dominated global economy has so far been suffocated by near-complete consensus.
We have been told Australia will be relegated to the economic slow lane without large-scale funding to improve our understanding of Asia. And we have been assured that the returns on an investment to make Australians more Asia-savvy will be gargantuan: Boston Consulting Group has estimated as much as $125 billion added to the Australian economy over the next decade, and Asialink has boldly predicted that the figure could be as high as $275 billion.
With numbers like these being thrown around, both sides of politics have eagerly proposed policies worth billions of dollars to increase Australia's stock of Asia expertise.
Although policies aimed at seizing Asian Century opportunities might seem commonsensical, they actually amount to costly solutions to an Asia-relevant capabilities non-problem.
Flying in the face of concerns Australia is suffering from a severe shortfall of Asia expertise, Australian Industry Group and Asialink research reveals that the promise of success in Asia has already become a reality for many Australian businesses.
Of the 64 per cent of businesses involved in Asia in some way, 76 per cent said their dealings in the region were 'living up to expectations', and a further 14 per cent said their operations were performing 'better than expected'.
When it comes to the barriers to success, Asia-relevant capabilities barely rate a mention.
Australian businesses said they are primarily constrained by economic and government policy-related hurdles.
With Australian businesses already prospering in Asia, programs to upskill Australians to work in Asia's new tiger economies are just white elephants.
However, even if the bulk of Australian businesses lacked adequate Asia-relevant capabilities, it would still not follow that the Australian workforce requires upskilling.
Instead of large-scale programs to teach Asian languages, improve cultural awareness, and increase Asian business skills, Australia can import all the Asia expertise it needs through the migration program.
Australia's migration program is dominated by the skilled stream, which accounted for approximately 126,000 places in 2011–12, or 68 per cent of the overall migration program.
By awarding points for visa eligibility on the basis of criteria such as qualifications and vocational skills, the skilled stream seeks to attract migrants with business acumen, technical expertise and workplace experience.
This migration stream mirrors the general migration program in which seven of the top 10 source countries are from Asia: In 2010–11, Asian nations accounted for six of the top eight General Skilled Migration visa grants, four of the top eight Employer Sponsored visa grants, and six of the top eight Business Skills visa grants.
Overall, Asian nations accounted for six of the top eight source countries for all skilled visa grants, with these top six Asian countries alone making up more than 50 per cent of the total skilled visa grants.
The combination of a skilled migration stream that relies heavily on Asian source countries and is geared towards attracting new Australians with professional skills makes Australia a beacon for migrants with sophisticated Asia-relevant capabilities.
This influx of tens of thousands of new Asia-savvy Australians each year supplements Australia's already large stock of Asia expertise.
In 2011, there were 1.7 million or so Asian-born Australians and 2.2 million Australians speaking Asian languages at home, making up eight per cent and 10 per cent of the total population respectively.
This means millions of Australians either already speak Asian languages or have Asian cultural literacy courtesy of a familial connection of some kind with Asia.
With a multicultural society equipped with a large and expanding pool of Asia-relevant capabilities, Australia already has the human capital necessary to prosper in the Asian Century.
We can only hope that our political class develops some Asia literacy of its own and learns the Confucian lesson that debate and dissent are immeasurably more valuable than complacent consensus.
When this happens, the orthodoxy of Asian Century anxiety will be challenged and it will become clear that multicultural Australia is set for success in an Asia-dominated world economy.
Benjamin Herscovitch is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies, and author of Australia and the Asian Ascendancy: Why Upskilling is Not Necessary to Reap the Rewards.