Citizen Diplomacy is the Key to Engaging with Asia
May 8, 2012 in Australia in the Asian Century
By Gaya Raghavan
The Global Foundation’s Australia Summit discussing Australia in the Asian Century bore one key message: people-to-people links are paramount to fostering deeper engagement between Australia and Asia across a wide range of industries and demographics. Dr Ken Henry, Chairman of the White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century Taskforce, made this point as he discussed the numerous consultations that members of the Taskforce had had with people representing both Australian and Asian interests.
Dr Henry emphasised the importance and relevance of individuals’, firms’ and sectors’ capabilities in creating deeper engagement with Asia on multiple levels and across a number of different industries. Strong personal relationships between Australians and their Asian counterparts are a major facilitator of this type of engagement. Many of the submissions to the White Paper pushed for the government to look into ways of boosting the opportunities for such relationships to be created. Dr Henry highlighted the Colombo Plan as an example.
The Colombo Plan, implemented in 1950, is focused on developing human resources in the Asia-Pacific region, with the goal of boosting member countries’ economic and social development. Its programs involved not only the transfer of physical capital but also skills development through overseas scholarships. Today, the Commonwealth government spends $200 billion on scholarships for overseas students to study here and for Australian students to study abroad. This figure is far greater than the amount of money invested in the Colombo Plan, suggesting that the program then was far more reliant on people-to-people links, which may have contributed to its ultimate success.
It is contact on an individual and firm level that elicits the economic opportunities and benefits that are so often spoken about when referring to the Asian Century. In speaking to Australians and people in Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, India and China, the Taskforce determined that individuals truly enjoy personal links built with people from a different culture who speak a different language. One might even suggest that this contributes to strong links that are better able to weather a change in either country’s political circumstances or other unforeseeable externalities.
Panellists who spoke throughout the summit echoed Dr Henry’s emphasis on this type of citizen diplomacy. Jonathan Mills, Director of the Edinburgh International Festival, pointed the focus of the discussion towards the importance of recognising and understanding the distinct culture of these countries. He argued that doing so will require a major shift in the cultural thinking of Australian institutions, organisations and corporations. According to Mr Mills, Australia must be culturally enriched in its approach to engaging with Asia and its people.
Professor Ed Byrne, Vice-Chancellor and President of Monash University, made the same point with some conviction, labelling Australia’s current knowledge of Asia as woeful. He emphasised the absolute need for Australians to have greater awareness and knowledge of the various cultures, ethos, histories and languages of Asia. He also acknowledged the danger of what he termed “small Australia” thinking, referring to the idea that an Australia that is not willing to see itself as a part of Asia – and to engage with Asia on all fronts – is a threat to itself. Professor Byrne signaled that Australia will no longer be able to sustain its intellectual leadership from its own population. As the country has traditionally looked to America and Europe to fill these gaps, it must now open its doors to intellectual leaders from Asia. In his words, achieving a deep and meaningful cultural link with Asia is the best security that Australia can obtain today.
Gaya Raghavan is in her final year of a Bachelor of Arts (Media & Communications) degree at The University of Melbourne. Gaya was an intern with the AIIA in 2011-2012 and is currently working on the Australia’s Role in the World initiative. She attended the Global Foundation’s Australia Summit as a youth reporter, representing Australia’s Role in the World.