On 28 October 2012, the Australian Government released a White Paper titled Australia in the Asian Century. To date, we have published an examination of the elastic boundaries of ‘Asia’ as it features in the White Paper (see David Brophy, ‘Australia’s Asia’, The China Story Journal, 31 October 2012) and a powerful oration by Stephen FitzGerald that addresses the white papering over of issues related to Australia in its Asian quest (‘Australia and China at Forty: Stretch of Imagination’, 12 November 2012). In The Australia-China Story section of this site we have also been collating the public and media discussion of the White Paper.
Less than a month after the White Paper was released, the profound paradox at the heart of economic aspiration and regional reality was highlighted. The Australia-US Alliance which has underpinned and influenced Australia’s strategic relationship with Asia and the Pacific since WWII, entered a new phase with the 14 November 2012 Australia-United States Annual Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) held in Perth, Western Australia. The recalibration of the alliance had been underway for some time, although it was highlighted when, in November 2011, US President Barak Obama declared at Parliament House in Canberra that the US was undertaking a ‘pivot towards Asia’. This policy tilt has been debated and discussed in countries throughout Asia and the Pacific. In Australia, the multidimensional bonds with the US are not posed solely in historic, strategic, commercial or cultural terms; some prominent political and media thinkers declare that this intimate relationship is in ‘Australia’s DNA’.
In a public address at the State Library of Victoria on 14 November 2012, former Prime Minister Paul Keating (Treasurer, 1983-1991; Prime Minister, 1991-1996) offered an overview of Australia’s historical role in the global corridors of power. He also spoke forcefully about what he regards as Australia’s ‘diminishing sphere of influence’ in Asia. In recent years, he declared, the country has ‘traded down in the big stroke business’ as a result of its overly deferential posture vis-à-vis the United States. He went on to say:
Our membership of the Anglosphere through the post-War years and down through the Cold War, did give us influence in the temples of power – but that power came from the victory of World War Two and our associate membership of ‘the West’. That world has changed. Now, we have to be propelled not by regard of withering associations but by our enlightened sense of self. Knowing who we are and what we are and what we want. And not only what we want, having a solid idea about how we get it.
This discourse leads to one conclusion: we will always be best being ourselves, exercising our ingenuity where it matters most, where we are most relevant, where our interests mostly coalesce and that is in the neighbourhood – the place we live. Recognising that our general membership of ‘the West’ was most relevant to us while ever ‘the West’ was the dominant global grouping – but that that period is now passing. What is not passing and what will not pass is our geopolitical positioning. The immutability of our need to successfully treat with and adapt to the neighbourhood – a neighbourhood which, save for New Zealand, is completely non-Western. …
Now that Australia is front and centre in the fastest growing part of the world as never before, our future has to amount to more than simply managing alliances. Effective at that as we have been in the past, we are now compelled to be more relevant to the dynamic region around us. This must mean that our opportunities to exercise independence and independence of action will be greater than they have ever been.
Not to measure up to this challenge would be to run the risk of being seen as a derivative power, perpetually in search of a strategic guarantor, a Western outpost, seemingly unable to confidently make its own way in the world. Surely we have reached the point where we have to turn away from that scenario, recognise the realities of our geography and strike out on our own. [The full text of the speech, ‘Asia in the New Order: Australia’s Diminishing Sphere of Influence‘, can be downloaded by clicking on the title.]
Not surprisingly, Keating’s successor as prime minister, John Howard (Prime Minister, 1996-2007), was quick to dismiss the speech as ‘fatuous’ and ‘juvenile’ (for details, see here). Nonetheless, Keating’s observations on ‘the big stroke business’ and Australia as ‘a derivative power’ are inescapably relevant both to the ambient as well as the strategic context of the government White Paper and its aspirational policies for the country. For some thinkers, Australia’s ‘strategic ambiguity’ in the region will become increasingly problematic; for others the balancing act is now part of the national DNA. Regardless, in the bright dawn of the Asian century Paul Keating (like Stephen FitzGerald, Hugh White and others) admonishes us to ponder the deeper implications of the boast that Australia is ‘in the right place at the right time’.
As we consider the new official mantra that the ‘tyranny of distance becomes the power of proximity’, we should also be mindful of the under-debated and ill-considered tyrannies that proximity may well impose.
The following essays are responses to the White Paper written by colleagues in the Australian Centre on China in the World. They are organised alphabetically by surname. Elisa Nesossi and I are grateful to our colleague Gloria Davies for her editorial work on this material.—Geremie R. Barmé
- Sue Chen, ‘A Question of Taiwan’
- Gloria Davies, ‘Benevolent Knowledge?’
- Paul Farrelly, ‘Serious Comic’
- Jane Golley, ‘Cruise and Snooze’ or ‘Strive and Thrive’: Take your pick
- Elisa Nesossi, ‘Selling Asia to Australian Consumers’
- Luigi Tomba, ‘Catching Up’
- Sue Trevaskes, ‘The White Paper and Asian Studies’
- Yayun Zhu, ‘The Call of Australia’
A Question of Taiwan
In ‘Australia’s Asia’, David Brophy raises the important issue of Taiwan’s absence from the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper’s definitions of Asia and asks if this was because the authors wanted ‘to keep Beijing happy’. In 2011, Taiwan was Australia’s sixth-largest merchandise export market and its fourteenth-largest source of merchandise imports yet it is included in only three of the eight definitions of ‘Asia’ in the White Paper’s glossary. In the main text, Taiwan is mostly mentioned in the context of economics and is cited, along with South Korea, Japan and Singapore, as an Asian economy which has ‘successively industrialised’. Taiwan is also referred to as a ‘mature industrial’ economy (pp.44; 69), a ‘high-income’ economy (pp.38; 276), an ‘advanced Asian’ economy (p.45), a ‘population-dense’ economy (p.31) and an ‘East Asian’ economy (p.34). We can only speculate why the authors of the White Paper chose to define Taiwan in these terms, but it is clear that focusing on the economy deflects from ongoing political tensions between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.
However, there are two instances in the White Paper where Taiwan is considered a country. First, when comparing ‘Australia’s reliance on Asian tourism’ with ‘most Asian countries’, the White Paper includes Taiwan among the six countries with a high percentage of Asian tourists (p.97). Second, in the section on working holiday maker program agreements, Taiwan is listed as one of the ‘partner countries’ (p.264). In ‘Table 3-5: Current WHM Program visa arrangements and year commenced’ of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s Population Flows: Immigration Aspects 2010-11 Edition booklet, Taiwan is also considered a country. According to this table, from 2010-2011, Australia issued 13,809 working holiday visas to Taiwanese passport holders (a 35.7 percent increase compared to 2009-2010), making Taiwan the second largest recipient of Australian working holiday visas among Asian partner countries (behind South Korea) and sixth overall, behind Britain, Ireland, France and Germany. In contrast, only 128 Australians were issued with working holiday permits to Taiwan. These statistics suggest that although the Australian government hopes to foster cultural exchange through the working holiday maker program and provide young Australians with more opportunities to work and study in Asia, the two-way exchange is far from balanced.
Despite Taiwan’s near disappearance in the White Paper’s definitions of ‘Asia’, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade considered it important enough to warrant a entry on their ‘Australia in the Asian Century Country and Regional Profiles’ page, which is linked to the Australia in the Asian Century website. In addition to Taiwan, information is provided for Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Timor-Leste, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. Curiously, however, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, New Zealand, Tajikistan, Tibet, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, countries included in the definitions of ‘Asia’ in the White Paper, are left out. Just how the Australian government defines its ‘Asia’ and its vision remains enigmatic.
Sue Chen is a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Australian Centre on China in the World
 David Brophy, ‘Australia’s Asia’, The China Story Journal, 31 October 2012.
 Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, ‘Taiwan Brief’.
 Department of Immigration and Citizenship, ‘Population Flows: Immigration Aspects 2010-11 Edition’.
 ‘Taiwan 5th Largest Working Holiday Source in Australia’, The China Post, 17 September 2012.
The idea of ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ while coherent offers little pragmatic application. This is because the geographical names, ‘Australia’ and ‘Asia,’ ultimately project an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ which bears no relation to how the world actually works today.
In the present age of instantaneous digital communications and voluminous global flows of capital, goods, information and people, national borders are highly porous, notoriously difficult and expensive to police. Hence they are a cause of constant and acute anxiety for those whose task is to protect them. The purpose of the White Paper is to provide ‘a roadmap for the whole of Australia – governments, business, unions, and the broader community’ with the goal of ‘securing Australia as a more prosperous and resilient nation that is fully part of our region and open to the world.’ In other words, Australia stands for an ‘us’, nervously contemplating our fortunate lives and future prospects in a world of ‘thems’, friendly or hostile or both, contingent on calculations bearing on differing circumstances.
The White Paper presents a battle plan for defending ‘our’ – that is, ‘Australia’s’ – current advantages as a land of plenty. It is perhaps no accident that the publication of the White Paper coincided with the Labor government’s move to excise the Australian mainland from the ‘migration zone’ (see the Editor’s introduction to David Brophy’s ‘Australia’s Asia’). In this totally-out-of-all-proportion response of an insecure government seeking to appear strong on the question of asylum seekers, the real question being asked is what might happen to our land of plenty if we keep on indiscriminately accommodating the uninvited poor and needful.
A similar logic shapes the White Paper whose central message seems to be that only an informed self-interested eclecticism can, as it were, save ‘us’ from the ‘thems’ perceived to pose a threat to our future well-being.
My colleague David Brophy has helpfully highlighted the confusions of ‘Asia’ charted in the White Paper. When reading through the lists of geographical names in the flexible definitions of Asia, I couldn’t help but think of Jorge Luis Borges’ outrageous faux-Chinese invention, The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. It is a work later made famous by Michel Foucault’s use of it in The Order of Things where he employs it to exemplify the fragile dependence of classifications on the ‘mute ground’ which sustains their logic.
The countries in Australia in the Asian Century make sense in a manner not unlike the animals of Borges’ Celestial Emporium. For, in the White Paper, countries are divided into: a) those with enormous benefits for the Australian economy; b/1) those with enormous benefits for the Australian economy yet which present political difficulties; b/2) those with good benefits for the Australian economy that may or may not have difficult relations with a) or b/1); c) those of little benefit to the Australian economy yet which present political difficulties; d) those requiring aid that may, in the long run, be of benefit to ‘us’; and, finally, e) those to which Australia must deploy troops, ‘that from a long way off look like flies’; and so on and so forth.
In saying this, I am not – not in the slightest – belittling the efforts of the serious-minded people who produced the White Paper under Ken Henry’s expert guidance, for they have clearly toiled diligently to articulate a comprehensive account. Precisely because there seems to be no getting round the fact that governments and institutions are organized around the idea of service to that complex and elusive creature called ‘the national interest’, it is all the more important to remind ourselves that this assembled creature is not an organic unity but one of human design. It is both fabulous and dangerous – a shape-shifting truth unto itself.
That said, the White Paper’s emphasis on building ‘ “Asia-relevant” capabilities’ will, hopefully, lead to better funding for the study of languages, cultures and histories which constitute our common human inheritance. The worry is that the funding will be calculated to extend no further than the stated goal of ensuring that ‘businesses, the public sector and national institutions … have the right mix of capabilities to seize the opportunities and make the most of Asia’s rise.’ There is no place in this commerce-driven vision for learning and scholarship that will teach us to become more engaged or better human beings.
As the intellectual historian Tony Judt wrote in Ill Fares the Land: ‘the pursuit of material self-interest … now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth.’
We live in a very selfish age. Perhaps in a future, more enlightened time when those of us with plenty no longer consume as much as we presently do and are more prepared to share land, resources and opportunities for success far more generously with those who have little – when the world has become much less unequal – the language in which ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ is framed may appear, in hindsight, as an exotic relic.
Gloria Davies is an Associate Professor at Monash University and an Adjunct Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World.
 Borges wrote:
These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.
Australia in the Asian Century has generated a considerable amount of media commentary. All combined, these efforts would not be far off the White Paper’s imposing 300-page length. Opinions are clearly not in short supply.
For all its ambition and flaws, the White Paper is a worthwhile public policy document. Australia’s place in, and engagement with, Asia needs to be articulated and debated. Prime Minister Julia Gillard expresses an aspiration in the Foreword: ‘I want our nation to be a winner as our region changes and I want every Australian to be a winner too.’
Throughout Australia in the Asian Century we are told there will be something for every Australian. ‘Learning about Asia should be business-as-usual for every Australian school and every Australian student’, the government ‘will encourage every Australian university to have a presence in Asia’. If the future unfolds as the White Paper suggests, every Australian student will be learning differently from how they learn now.
But how should have the overall author of the document, Dr Ken Henry, best conveyed this monumental requisite shift of thinking to the Australian public? Not necessarily just with 300 pages of bureaucratese.
Even though Australia has long been economically tied to Asia, for many Australians the region remains conceptually more remote than North America or Europe. Some commentators have lauded the White Paper for its goal-driven story, while others bemoan its lack of narrative. Either way, Dr Henry and his team have a communication problem. The White Paper is far too long and dry for the average Aussie to make a fist of. Much of the resulting media commentary is no better.
I suggest the government take a look at the USA’s 9/11 Commission Report. Like the recent White Paper, the 9/11 Commission Report was an impenetrably long account of an era-defining event, albeit one scripted in response to a tragedy, unlike the White Paper’s anticipation of future prosperity.
The solution to uninviting official prose is a comic book. The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation (2006) conveyed the geo-political complexity and sheer horror of the attacks in a way that was far more accessible to America’s ‘average Joe’. Through striking imagery and condensed text, the comic’s authors rewrote the report’s narrative in a way that good ol’ folks could understand.
The reach of Australia’s Asian Century would be far greater were it to be reprinted in manga style. Not only is it a chance to engage with those to whom the paper refers – every Australian student – it is also an apt way of demonstrating cultural engagement. Manga (comics) and anime (animated movies) are undoubtedly one of Japan’s most significant cultural exports. A manga version of Australia’s Asian Century could truly convey the magnitude of Australia’s Asian century to our youth.
If, as is stated in the White Paper, ‘Every Australian student will have significant exposure to studies of Asia across the curriculum’, then a manga version of the Paper might be the most inspiring way to stimulate interest in this seemingly opportunity-rich Australian Asian Century.
Paul Farrelly is a PhD candidate in the Australian Centre on China in the World and one-time bureaucrat. He is sympathetic to those who try to communicate government policy to the public. When the Asian Century White Paper was announced in late 2011, he wrote a longer piece about the broader context of Australia in Asia titled ‘An All-new Flavour? Australia’s Asian Century’, Erenlai 人籁 Magazine, 10 November 2011.
 White Paper.
 Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific Editor of The Australian, hints at this opportunity, writing: ‘The paper has a purposeful, upbeat quality that could attract Australians to join more full-heartedly the journey towards Asian engagement that (former Prime Minister Bob) Hawke launched’. See Callick, ‘Back to the Big Picture’, The Australian, 29 October 2012.
 Steven Schwarz, ‘The Asian Century: Gillard’s Tardis Idea’, The Australian Financial Review, 31 October 2012.
 Graeme Dobell, ‘Asia White Paper: Process and politics’, the interpreter, 29 October 2012.
 Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón, The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, Chapter One.
‘Cruise and Snooze’ or ‘Strive and Thrive’: Take your pick
Since the launch of the ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ White Paper on Sunday 28 October, there has been enough negative press to sink a small dinghy, with an onslaught of headlines such as: ‘Vision but Little Detail in the Asian Paper’, ‘Meaningless Promises, Replete with Pure Spin’, ‘Dark Side of the White Paper’, ‘White Paper Fails to Deliver on Energy’, ‘Vision of Region Too Optimistic’, ‘This Asian Century is so Last Century’, ‘Vision Clouded on China and US’… . The list goes on.
To lighten the atmosphere a little, here is a positive, and personal, story about how a little bit of vision can go a long way.
My story begins in 1988 when, thanks to some dedicated and enthusiastic teachers and parents, Hawker College (a public school in Canberra) offered a school trip to Japan. As a seventeen year-old school girl studying Maths, Physics, Chemistry and English I knew little about, and had little interest in, Japan. But my parents had recently visited the country and, enthralled by what they had seen, generously offered to foot the bill. I went and I loved it.
Applying for university some months later, my mother continually ‘encouraged’ me (in that way that only mothers can) to study economics and Japanese. I’m not sure why she fixated on this combination but I have no doubt that it was connected to then Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s own vision of Australia in Asia, on which the new White Paper vision so clearly builds. I think she was convinced that an Asian language would not only make me rich, but that it would open doors that I never even knew existed. For once, I listened.
In 1991, in the middle of my Economics degree (majoring in Japanese) at the ANU, I spent a year in Japan and it was there that I heard about the Kobe Steel Scholarship, offered annually to one Australian for two years of postgraduate study in a subject of their choice at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. One of the main pre-requisites for the scholarship was a demonstrated interest in Japan. The next year I applied for a Treasury cadetship to fund my Honours degree. At the time, former Treasurer and newly appointed Prime Minister Paul Keating was intent on diversifying the skill set at Treasury, and my Japanese language skills helped me secure a position in the recently established Asia Section. I started work there in 1993 and was asked to monitor the Chinese economy (along with South Korea, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei), because Japan was too important for a new graduate, Japanese speaking or not.
In any case, this new position must have looked quite nice on my CV, because in 1994 Kobe Steel awarded me the scholarship and off I went to Oxford, where I spent the next eight years, completing my doctorate on the Chinese economy, teaching undergraduate economics, slowly trying to learn Chinese and enjoying fabulous work/study stints at the World Bank in Washington DC, the World Institute for Development Economics Research (UNU/WIDER) in Helsinki, and Renmin University in Beijing.
I returned to ANU in 2003 because it seemed to me the best place in the world to pursue an academic career focused on the Chinese economy, and I am now based at the Australian Centre on China in the World, hopefully playing a small role in strengthening Australia’s understanding of one of the most fascinating and complex countries on earth. I couldn’t have conjured up a career path that would have suited me better, even if I could have been far richer! And for that, I have to thank the visions of two former Prime Ministers and, of course, my mum.
After the press conference Julia Gillard was asked ‘How are we going to get students interested in studying Asian languages?’ She responded that it was up to all of us – the Prime Minister, teachers, parents and friends – to inspire young Australians to seize the opportunities that lie in waiting in this Asian century. On that point, regardless of the finer details, I couldn’t agree more.
I think the Prime Minister and her White Paper team should be congratulated for presenting the nation with an excellent vision, and a simple choice: to remain a culture of ‘cruise and snooze’ stuck in a Euro-centric past, or to become one of ‘strive and thrive’ in an Asia-centric future. I certainly know what choice I’ll be encouraging my own child to make. But no matter what either the Prime Minister or I say, or how much we plan or spend, that choice will ultimately be his.
Jane Golley is an Associate Director, the Australian Centre on China in the World. A version of this essay appeared in The Canberra Times on 12 November 2012 under the title ‘Future Choice to Strive or Struggle’.
Selling Asia to Australian Consumers
The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper invites Australian businesses and investors to seize the opportunities that the booming economies of Asia present.
The highly rhetorical tone of the White Paper is striking and very similar to the self-congratulatory language of public government reports published in many Asian countries. The general storyline is: all is well in the new rising Eden; the fruits are ripe and the flowers in full blossom under the golden rays of the Asian sun. People are happy, having been brought out of poverty. With the exponential rise of the GDP in many countries, Asian nations have now secured their future. So, what are Australia’s busy bees waiting for? It would seem that from the top of Mt Kosciuszko ‘Asia’ appears as one giant market. Or to change the metaphor, ‘Asia’ is a vast ocean in which Australians who know how to cast their bait will be richly rewarded with a great catch.
There are, however, a few knotty and neglected problems.
The good, the bad and the ugly are all presented as opportunities for investment. The paper’s emphasis is on material benefits to be gained from knowing and understanding Asia. Environmental challenges are presented not as urgent problems but as investment opportunities. Should the same be said of overpopulation, food scarcity, natural disasters and resource depletion? The White Paper does mention a formal commitment to a fair society but in the absence of a clearly articulated and detailed plan, such commitment remains at best rhetoric.
The White Paper seems to have overlooked the need to describe the very diverse societies it calls ‘Asia’ as requiring many different and complex forms of engagement. One key issue that the White Paper elides – perhaps so as not to discourage investors – is the absence of practicable and consistent whole-Asia framework for the protection of trade rights, patents, copyrights and intellectual property. If the document is serious about large-scale strategic investments on a national scale, it must attend to these challenging problems.
While there is much discussion of economic goodwill, openness and interest in Asia as a consumer market, there are only few references to Asia as a primary supplier of resources. Even less attention is paid to trade imbalances and flaws in the economic models on which trade with Asia is being conducted and which have generated some of the imbalances we witness in today’s globalised world. Again, there is no consideration of how local and foreign investments can be encouraged in highly uneven situations or in societies where corruption is rife.
Finally, within the rosy picture limned in the White Paper, the issue of stability is oversimplified and considered merely in highly positive terms. Readers should not forget that various Asian countries have been increasing their spending on what the Chinese call ‘stability maintenance’ in successive years creating new investment opportunities in the areas of policing, surveillance and prisons. Some may argue that repressive state power helps to enhance market growth and that censorship and the jailing of dissidents is a small price to pay for economic progress. When I began to consider this issue in relation to the White Paper’s recommendations, it suddenly occurred to me that in all of the fine rhetoric about developing an open, fair and prosperous Australia through doing business in Asia, human rights barely rated a mention.
Elisa Nesossi is a Post-doctoral Fellow with the Australian Centre on China in the World.
The transformation of China into one of the fastest growing economies in the world has been and remains haunted by the idea of backwardness. Ever since Mao Zedong decided to ‘overtake England and catch up to the US in steel production’ 超英趕美 in 1957 and to launch the disastrous Great Leap Forward, the idea of ‘catching up’ with the rest of the world has been a dominant feature of China’s attitude towards development.
The latest incarnation of China’s ‘overcoming backwardness’ discourse can be found in the government’s preoccupation with ‘improving the quality’ of the Chinese population. This is a hegemonic discourse. It materialised in the form of moralising campaigns for self-improvement. It prescribes a scientific attitude towards education, seeing education in wholly utilitarian terms as the single most important factor for measuring China’s rise out of its former luohou 落后 (backward) status in the world.
The result has been the proliferation of benchmarks and rankings that allow middle-class high-quality new ‘customers’ to make rational choices about their investment in education. Such rationality guides pupils’ curricula from pre-school to university and favourably compares ‘top’ domestic universities with mid-ranging international academic institutions. All this is done in the name of raising the quality of the nation.
The Asian Century White Paper is driven by a similar fear that Australia will be left behind or that it is already lagging behind. This fear is well justified because of the long-term neglect of investments in skills that are crucial to maintain a voice in this brave, new Asian world. Yet, it is a concern that this approach to ‘catching up’ sometimes resembles the target-oriented, inflated statiscially driven attitude of China’s Great Leap Forward.
It is, indeed, significant and positive that investment in education is taking centre stage. But we are left to wonder many things. For example, what can metrics tell us about whether a new generation of young Australians has successfully adapted to life in Asia? The standardised benchmarks that are now sadly applied to universities are prominent in the government’s document. There is, for example, the stated goal of doubling the number of Australian universities, by 2025, in the top 100 of several – very dubious and contradictory – world rankings. The White Paper seems to imply that lifting ten of our Universities into the top 100 would somehow make Australia ‘Asia-ready.’ One’s immediate reaction surely is: why are ‘ten’ and ‘hundred’ the two magic numbers? Is this a sign that we have finally capitulated to the thrall of the metric system? Why not six in the top fifty, or fifteen in the top 200, or any other combination of numbers? Slogans might enjoy only a short life, but they can have a long-term impact.
Rankings are a most unreliable way to measure the usefulness of such a complex organization as a university, as was recently acknowledged even by the ‘Group of Eight’, the leading Australian universities which benefit the most from a benchmark-based allocation of funding. Benchmarks allocate scores on allegedly scientific criteria, which are notoriously blind to the actual and diverse capacities and needs of universities. By using ranked scores to reward institutions and decide policy and investments, misallocations of crucial and scarce investments, both by universities and by the government are likely. The current system is geared to reward spectacular achievements rather than to fund crucial advancements in education. Thus, a Nobel Prize remains the single most important factor for a university’s upward surge in the rankings.
How would chasing higher rankings help to prepare Australians for Asia? To give but one obvious example, Asian Studies, an area of expertise where several Australian universities would be ranked very high and that, one could argue, should play a not-too-marginal role in an Asia-ready Australia, is not even a field considered in most university rankings. Based on this benchmarking logic, universities would be well advised to invest elsewhere.
One wonders whether the logic of ‘catching up’ will result in even wider acceptance in Australia of the tyranny of world rankings, in ways that reflect the obsession with rankings in China (where, at Jiaotong University, one of the main international university ranking systems is generated).
Would it not be better for us to think instead about other ways to improve, for example by building a distinctively Australian way to educate students about our newly minted neighbourhood and to fund research on Asia, building on the research achievements and talents at many Australian universities?
Several positive things appear possible after this White Paper, and hopefully they will take centre stage in the process of policy making and implementation: for example, capitalising on the increasingly open and outward-looking attitude of Asian academic institutions; expanding Australia’s capacity to welcome Asian students, not just those who make a financial contribution, but also the graduate research students who are likely to articulate new scientific, social and political ideas within the region, and who are now severely hampered by federal funding; and favouring greater regional intellectual integration. Australian academic institutions are perfectly placed arenas of open debate for this and more.
There are no ‘brownie points’ to be earned in the eyes of the metrics-mavens from such activities; no change in ranking is likely to result from investments in these areas. But the returns could be immense for Australia and the region.
Luigi Tomba is an Associate Director, the Australian Centre on China in the World.
The White Paper and Asian Studies
To date, commentary in the Australian press on the Asian Century White Paper has ranged from the highly congratulatory (in relation to its general aspirations) to the extremely negative (in view of the lack of funding attached to these aspirations). The vast majority of opinions point to the absence of specific government commitment to funding most of the stated goals and ‘pathways’. Greg Sheridan of The Australian newspaper, for instance, has said that it ‘will have no discernible effect on the physical universe’ because the Gillard government believes ‘you can get the same political benefit from announcing as from doing.’
Much of the commentary on the Asia-literacy aspect of the White Paper has centered on the study of Asian languages in schools and the enormous resourcing that will be required to provide schools with qualified language-proficient teachers. However, quite apart from this aspirations-language funding mismatch is a further problem to do with Asian-ising the curriculum that has been overlooked by much of the media commentary.
The White Paper links Asia literacy with the ‘study of Asia’ as a significant part of the school curriculum (see Australia in the Asian Century, p.170). This aspiration also spreads to universities, with a stated White Paper aim ‘to increase the number of students who undertake Asian studies’ (p.174) in universities. Whether designed as part of a teaching program or as part of a discrete bachelors’ degree, universities may need to consider initiating or rebooting the Asian studies agenda at university level.
Those who teach Asian studies in Australian universities are well aware that the dedicated study of Asia – either through specific area studies or general Asian studies degrees – has been on the wane since the early 1990s. Relatively few universities these days continue to offer a degree called ‘Asian Studies’. For various reasons, mostly to do with financial resourcing, even those departments that do continue to offer Asian Studies degrees have come under increasing pressure to refocus their Asia content to attract students from business or international relations degrees and other similar programs. Tailoring of conventional Asian Studies degrees to meet the needs of business, management and government studies has meant that specific Area Studies, which have traditionally been based in the humanities-oriented disciplines such as history, literature, philosophy/thought and, in recent decades, Culture Studies, are no longer offered in many universities.
While this refocussing on business, international politics and international relations certainly has clear practical benefits for those taking these specific degrees, it does not fulfill the needs of the Henry paper’s expectations of an increased undertaking of Asian Studies across university curricula. The report says that the government ‘will support universities to increase the number of students who undertake Asian studies’ (p.174) but before government begins this support (whatever form it may takes), universities will need to consider and reflect on what type of Asian Studies will best equip students for a life of Asian or country- or region-specific cultural literacy. Asian-ising or re-Asian-ising the university curriculum will need to precede any Asian-ising of the school curriculum, that is if school teachers are to be adequately equipped to teach about Asia in schools. Universities need to have a robust debate, or a least a conversation, about what forms of Asian Studies best suit institutions of higher education in the planned Asian century.
Sue Trevaskes is an Associate Professor, Griffith University, and an Adjunct Director, the Australian Centre on China in the World.
 Greg Sheridan, ‘White Paper Merely Talks the Talk, in a Language No One Will Learn’, The Australian, 1 November 2012.
The Call of Australia
In the Labor government’s much-heralded Australia in the Asian Century Asia’s rise is hailed as ‘a defining feature of the 21st century’, and Australia is lucky to be ‘located in the right place at the right time’. The White Paper, drawing a roadmap for Australia’s future economic engagement with the rising Asia, has since generated a variety of musings among the reading public. In the China Story Journal David Brophy, for example, illustrated the intricate and nuanced politics of the term ‘Asia’ and Australia’s ambivalent view of its place in the region. As an Asian immigrant, I want to express my appreciation for the White Paper’s emphasis on the importance of Asia, but my optimism has been overshadowed by its silence on the historical past of Australia-Asia relations, and by its lack of human stories relevant to our understanding of the region in the coming century.
I came to Australia to study in late July 1997, when the nation was in the grip of gloom and doom about the Asian financial crisis. China had just resumed control of Hong Kong on a night of pelting rain. The turn of the century showed little promise of a dawning age of prosperity and hope in Asia. An air of fin de siècle melancholy and anxiety, along with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, descended upon the landscape of my newly adopted country. In her maiden speech to the Federal Parliament in September 1996, Ms Hanson proclaimed: ‘I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and 1995, 40 per cent of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.’ This piqued outburst by no means represented the views of most Australians, but the Zeitgeist was certainly a refrain of the familiar ‘tyranny of distance’: Australia was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Of course there is no denying Australia’s generosity towards Asia at times. The Colombo Plan and the outreach to Japan after the Second World War were early and enlightened initiatives. Later, Malcolm Fraser’s brave decision to honour Australia’s full commitment to Vietnam by admitting its refugees and Bob Hawke’s decision to let the Chinese students stay after the Tiananmen Square tragedy were both admirable gestures. They affirmed the robustness of Australia’s open culture and reflected a wider generosity of spirit. If there is an Asian century at all, Australia should be proud of its past contributions. But my fifteen years’ sojourn in this country also tells me a darker side of the Australia-Asia narratives. The so-called ‘dark victory’ of John Howard and Hansonism still linger in our memory, and the recent treatment of Asian asylum seekers reeks of unbridled racism. My experience as an overseas student has been a pleasant and rewarding one, but many Asian students report hidden and subtle discrimination in their daily experience, from seeking accommodation to employment. The very system that attracts us here – the quality of education it produces – has in many cases been compromised by economic calculations; quality has, sadly, been diluted. Asian students have become the new cash crops. Even in this institution where I am studying, little effort has been made to strengthen the teaching of history, literature and culture of Asian countries. I often wonder what the Asian students, whom the White Paper regards as the future ambassadors between Australia and the region, would think about Australia when they are confronted with the barren course offerings about their countries. I also wonder what kind of Asian century the White Paper editors actually see. There is little reflection on Asian histories and cultures in the document. The silence speaks volumes.
Michael Wesley in his recent article in the Australian Financial Review rightly reminds us that ‘what is remarkable about Australia in the Asian Century is that it’s not really about Asia at all. The only aspects of Asia it considers are those that relate to self-enrichment opportunities for Australia.’ Indeed the Asian century rhetoric is all about the economic boom and bane. What lurks behind the florid lip service is a faceless Asia, reduced to a bunch of comfortable middle class customers for the goods and services offered by our laconic jolly fellows. The Asian century projects a wondrous sea of opportunities on which our treasure-seeking flotilla sails. There are almost no personal stories in the White Paper, apart from the success story of a couple of Indian gentlemen (names stated in full), and economic success is presented as the raison d’être of Asians and Australians alike. The absence in the White Paper of honest acknowledgement of the historical and contemporary difficulties in Australia’s engagement with Asia, coupled with the absence of any reference to the complexities of Asia, its peoples, cultures and histories, will very likely lead many Asian people to read the White Paper in a cynical way. As a public document, it exudes self-importance. To put it bluntly, the concept of ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ is used to produce a sugar-coated manual of modern economic exploitation.
As I pondered over the gilded catchphrase ‘Asian century’, another contentious term ‘prosperous age’ (shengshi 盛世) came to mind. This is the term the Chinese use to describe times of great economic wealth in imperial and contemporary China. The historian Philip Kuhn asked what ‘prosperous age’ really meant to ordinary people. He wrote: ‘From the standpoint of an eighteenth-century Chinese commoner, commercial growth may have meant, not the prospect of riches or security, but a scant margin of survival in a competitive and crowded society’ and ‘scramble for existence in an uncertain environment may have been a more vivid reality in most people’s lives than the commercial dynamism that so impresses us in hindsight.’
The June 2011 issue of China Heritage Quarterly carries a range of critical reflections on perceived and declared ‘prosperous ages’ in China past and present. In a similar vein, by painting the ‘Asian century’ as a glorious time filled with opportunities for securing Australia’s prosperity, the White Paper conveniently brushes aside the unpleasant realities of Asia – asylum-seeking, poverty, authoritarian control, corruption – and thereby absolves Australia from its moral obligations and responsibilities as a global citizen. As I read the White Paper, I found myself thinking that this coming century should not be anyone’s century. Rather, this century belongs to everyone; every country should be a responsible member of our living world.
Assailed by a barrage of yawning words such as opportunities, win-win and benefits, I kept asking myself questions. Is economic benefit the primary incentive to know thy neighbour? What would a relationship based primarily on mutual commercial gains look like? Wouldn’t a relationship built on meaningful cultural understanding last longer and run deeper than a merely transactional and instrumental one? And more importantly, if Asia is to figure prominently in the lives of Australians, and if engagement is to live up to its full promise, how much time are we prepared to give to learning about the histories and cultures of Asia?
Thinking about this reminded me of something that happened fifteen years ago. During my first Christmas holidays in Sydney, I sunbathed on the beaches, a national cultural obsession for many and a novel delight for me. When I sat on the Obelisk I was reading Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs. The Manly ferries cruised past and the passengers on board waved at us. As the sun shone on our languid legs and the sea breeze caressed the pages, the captive images of Australia leapt out of the lines:
In Sydney Harbour, twelve thousand miles away and ten hours from now, the yachts will be racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires. It would be churlish not to concede that the same abundance of natural blessings which gave us the energy to leave has every right to call us back. … Pulsing like a beacon through the days and nights, the birthplace of the fortunate sends out its invisible waves of recollection. It always has and it always will, until even the last of us come home.
Being an expatriate in London, Mr James felt the pull of his homeland; and as a newly- arrived foreigner, I saw an ideal picture of an imagined Australia, generous in its spirit, hopeful in its vision, not only for those who were fortunate to be born here, but for many Asians who came to its shores. Thousands of miles away from home, imagining myself a lucky man, I was almost moved to tears. Fifteen years later, I still am.
Yayun Zhu is a PhD candidate, the Australian Centre on China in the World.
 David Brophy, ‘Australia’s Asia’, The China Journal, 31 October 2012.
 For a complete text of Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech, see here.
 Michael Wesley, ‘Australia Must Go All the Way with Asia’, Review supplement, Australian Financial Review, 2 November 2012..
 Philip A. Kuhn, Soulstealers: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990, p.35.
 Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs, London: Pan MacMillan, 1981, p.174.