爱国 àiguó: to loves ones country/patriotism. Image: AP

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a post, and to kick things off again I thought I’d take a look at Australia’s renewed obsession with Asia, triggered by the Australian Government’s recently released Asian White Paper.

I went to a fascinating forum last week on Australia’s Engagement in Asia through Future Foreign Policy. Hosted by AsiaLink at Melbourne University, and to be broadcast on newsline this Thursday November 22, the Q&A style event saw Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer and Labor MP Richard Marles answer audience questions on Asia and what we as a country are trying to do with/about it. I say fascinating because it became clear during the course of the forum from the disconnected and vague responses that past the fact it’s there, good for foreign investment, and we should be doing something about it, neither Kelly or Richard have much clue about Asia.

The audience for this event were a culturally diverse bunch. Over 150 people who from the various questions, were already very ‘engaged’ with clear personal interest or involvement with Asia. Most of the people seemed to emigrated from, or lived, studied, worked overseas and at the very least the majority spoke an Asian language or had a son/daughter learning one. So why was Richard’s best answer to a question on how should young Australian’s engage with Asia, to “go out and make friends, just go overseas study, make friends”. Clearly sir, we’ve already done that.

The introductions were centred on reeling off growth statistics from what I like to call the ‘Asian Wheel of Fortune’, as the reason we need to engage. We were told how Australia is an activist middle power, great at managing countries smaller than us, or acting as a go between. We don’t need to choose between America and China, yet we aren’t willing to accommodate China unless it sticks to the rules based international system. Forgetting that America isn’t the best country to follow on that one.

Another audience member wanted to know if Asia wanted to engage with Australia. Do they really? An emphatic “Yes!”, apparently they do, because as we have seen, they want to buy our mineral resources. But I really don’t think we can consider buying iron ore engaging across multiple sectors.

An important cultural question popped up, Korea and Japan are great at using their soft cultural power overseas to promote design, art, music. “Why doesn’t Australia move out of sport and do that to?” Luckily, both Kelly and Richard agreed this would be great! The Japanese went wild for the Australian Ballet, but when they wanted to go to China last year to tour, there was no funding so they went to New York instead. Apparently it’s cheaper to fly twice the distance.

The Australian Government has been there and done this before in the 1980s and early 1990s never to follow through. From the crowd of people gathered at Melbourne University there is clearly a growing population in Australia that wants us to be involved with something greater than Bali and Phuket. The intention of both parties is right, but everyone seems to blindly fumbling when it comes to what to do.

As opaque as China’s leadership is, behind Thursday’s unveiling of a new China management team we saw a government fully aware that’s economy is slowing and needs to do something else. An economy in which Australia has placed the good majority of its eggs. If the Chinese government can see it needs to diversify, why can’t Australia’s?

How does aviation fit in?

Aviation featured vaguely in the Asian Century White Paper, with a small case study into Indian Investment into Gippsland Aero, and the failings of Sydney Airport. That was it. Australia’s aviation industry is growing, we can boast of one of the world’s safest aviation regimes, with a mass of incredibly talented people across airlines, air traffic control, training, safety, regulation. Combining this with perhaps the world’s most globalised industry, the aviation industry seems to be the perfect vestibule through which to engage with our northern neighbours. If the government and the general population are truly serious that is. Are you onboard?

The Australian Government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper