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Abundant Asian Century opportunities for an already Asia-savvy Australia

Benjamin Herscovitch | ON LINE Opinion | 25 February 2013

Despite five years of global financial woes and sovereign debt risks, Asia's hunger for our resources has kept the Australian economy fired up.

Although multi-billion dollar resource deals and flotillas of China-bound freighters might take the headlines, Australia's non-resource exports should not be overlooked.

Indeed, with the region's middle-classes expected to swell to 3.2 billion by 2030, Asian consumers and companies could open up rivers of gold for Australia goods and services exporters.

Asialink predicts that as much as $275 billion could be injected into the Australian economy over the next decade if we improve our share of Asia's non-resource imports by just 0.3 per cent.

There is a catch though.

According to academics, business leaders and politicians alike, Australia needs to develop more Asia expertise to seize these massive Asian Century opportunities.

It seems cultural politics has taken centre stage in the debate about Australia's economic prospects in a global economy centred on Asia.

The near-complete consensus is that Australians lack the sensitivity and understanding to effectively compete in Asian markets and forge ever-closer ties with our northern neighbours.

As well as being reminiscent of the cultural cringe of a bygone era, these calls for deeper Asia awareness undersell Australia's natural strengths.

The idea that we are dangerously ignorant of the languages, cultures and mores of Asia is a step back towards a time when it was fashionable to deride Australia for being crude compared to European standards of sophistication.

It suggests Australians are embarrassingly Asia-illiterate and not quite ready to move beyond their parochial shores.

Perhaps this view is the result of the sneaking suspicion that the society that brought us the White Australia policy could not possibly be successful in the Asian Century.

It might equally be a reflection of disbelief that a country which for so long depended on North Atlantic powers for its security and cultural nourishment could now stride into its own geographic neighbourhood with confidence.

Or maybe it is related to a generational lag of sorts. Many of the academics, business leaders and politicians calling for Asian Century upskilling came of age when Australia was probably not ready to effectively engage with Asia on many levels.

Although the origin of the Asian Century cultural cringe is unclear, it is out of touch with the reality of modern multicultural Australia.

In fact, there are growing numbers of Australians with exactly the same Asia-relevant capabilities it is claimed we are yet to develop.

As well as making up for seven of the top 10 source countries in the overall migration program, Asian nations dominate the skilled migration stream.

Six of the top eight source countries for skilled visa grants were from Asia in 2010–11, accounting for the arrival of more than 50,000 Asian migrants with business acumen, technical expertise, and workplace experience.

Given the prominence of key Asian nations such as China and India in the skilled migration stream (the number one and three source countries respectively), our migration program is bringing in the knowledge and experience needed in the Chinese and Indian-led Asian Century.

This steady stream of new Asia expertise adds to Australia's already large pool of readymade Asia-relevant capabilities.

In 2011, approximately 2.2 million people spoke Asian languages at home-equivalent to one in 10 Australians.

With many Asian languages-speaking Australians also having familial connections with Asian nations, it is obviously misleading to say Australians suffer from a blind spot when it comes to Asian cultures.

Given the shift in global economic weight to Asia, Australia would certainly be wise to position itself as the education provider, tourist destination, and food producer of choice for billions of cashed-up Asian consumers.

We should not worry about missing out on these opportunities though: It is Australia's good fortune that tapping into this Asian Century bonanza does not require costly education and training programs.

As a naturally Asia-savvy nation, Australia's supposed unpreparedness to engage with Asia is just a phantom menace.

Benjamin Herscovitch is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies and previously worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.