Business didn’t wait for White Paper

The Gillard government has pitched its Asian Century White Paper as a blueprint for Australia’s next great nation-building project.

Despite the confected pomp and circumstance accompanying its launch, the White Paper will not usher in anything as significant as the push for a multicultural Australia in the 1970s or the liberalisation of the Australian economy in the 1980s.

Indeed, we can expect meagre policy returns from the White Paper because it tells us little we did not already know.

Yes, Asia is on the rise in the face of relative North Atlantic decline. Yes, our region will be home to billions of newly cashed-up middleclass consumers by mid century. And yes, we need to be prepared to ship more than iron ore and coking coal to Asia’s increasingly diversified consumer economies.

As Peter Anderson, head of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, observed, the White Paper’s mantra of   engagement with an ascendant Asia does little more than state the “bleeding obvious.”

To be sure, the White Paper proposes some useful initiatives, such as establishing an embassy in Mongolia and appointing a Jakartabased ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

However, a country that is economically, demographically and politically part of Asia hardly needs a 320-page government  report to seize its Asian Century opportunities.

Australian businesses are not waiting for advice from Canberra to step up their operations in Asia’s sprawling manufacturing centres and dynamic commercial hubs.

Australia’s exports to Asia rose by more than 80% in the decade to 2011, while exports to the rest of the world fell by more than 20%. Australia’s exports to the region now exceed $A220 billion, which is almost triple the exports to the rest of the world.

With China, Japan, South Korea and India now the top four destinations for Australian exports, Asian countries account for seven out of Australia’s top 10 trading partners.

Free-trade agreement-fuelled trade flows will tie Australia even closer to Asia’s rapidly rising economies. FTAs being negotiated with China, Japan, South Korea, India and Indonesia will complement agreements already in place with Singapore and Thailand, along with a recently concluded FTA with Malaysia that will soon come into force.

Australia is also already demographically part of Asia: Australians are Chinese and Indian just as they are English and Italian. According to the 2011 Census, 10% of the population, or 2.2 million people, speak Asian languages at home. This includes more than 650,000 speakers of Chinese languages and more than 300,000 speakers of Indian languages.

The vast numbers of speakers of Asian languages also point to a large pool of Asian cultural literacy: Speaking an Asian language at home is a useful proxy for having a familial connection of some kind with the country from which the language comes.

Even at the political level, the White Paper charts a course Australia embarked on years ago.

From Paul Keating’s enthusiasm for Asia to John Howard’s emphasis of our Asian geography, Australia has long been politically part of Asia.

Both sides of politics recognise that Beijing, Jakarta and New Delhi are now as vital to Australia as London and Washington ever were. Testament to this, Australia has strategic partnerships with both Indonesia and India, while also sharing numerous bilateral dialogues and consultative mechanisms with China.

Australia’s well-established place in Asia is reflected in the spread of diplomatic efforts: Australia’s 251 diplomats in Asia dwarf the 92 Australian diplomats serving in Europe and the 67 posted to the Americas.

Australia also has a history of involvement in Asia’s multilateral forums, including membership in Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec), active engagement with Asean, and observer status in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

Just as Australian businesses have tied our economy to the Asian ascendency, and immigration has made Australian society Asian by nature, leaders of both political hues have positioned Australia to be part of the community of Asian nations.

The Asian embrace started decades ago and continues apace in boardrooms, backyards and embassies.

As a country that is in a very real sense already part of Asia, Australia does not need a government report to prepare for the Asian Century.

Benjamin Herscovitch is author of Australia’s Asia Literacy Non-Problem (2012). Before joining The Centre for Independent Studies he was a desk officer at Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.