Today Australian students are less well equipped to relate to Indonesia than their parents and even grandparents

Writing in The Australian (May 3rd. 2012) Asia-Pacific Editor Rowan Callick castigates Australian business for being “lukewarm” in developing business relations with Asian nations. He surveys submissions to the Henry white paper on Australia in the Asian Century. He points out that, apart from industry groups, the only big Australian firms to make a submission to the white paper are Rio Tinto, IAG, ANZ and the Australian Stock Exchange. He quotes, among others, Professor Howard Dick (University of Melbourne) who states the obvious, that just as Indonesia is booming and its stockmarket a world-beater, Australian students are less well equipped to relate to Indonesia than their parents and even grandparents.

Read the article in full below, or go to:

Fear of failure reins in hopes for Asian engagement

by Rowan Callick, The Australian, May 03, 2012

IS Australian business really interested in Asia? A quick read through the submissions to the white paper on “Australia in the Asian century” being drafted by former Treasury chief Ken Henry for Prime Minister Julia Gillard makes one wonder.

We sell about two-thirds of our exports there, overwhelmingly resources, but we only place 6.2 per cent of our direct investment in the region. The rhetoric from speeches and annual reports is strong, but the spirit appears lukewarm. The 246 submissions to the white paper process — comprising a modest 3000 pages in all, the equivalent of 16 copies of Henry’s tax report — cover a huge range of ideas, ranging from military engagement with Burma to teaching world religions to paying pensions to Australians retiring to Asia.

Australian business largely left its response to industry groups, which naturally tend to approach such themes in a very circumspect way, their final contributions being massaged so as not to upset anyone in their constituency.

The only big firms to present their own positions are Rio Tinto, IAG, ANZ — and the ASX, in a triumph of hope after last year pretty much the whole parliament chased away its suitor, the Singapore stock exchange, in a xenophobic lynch-mob.

The Chinese telecommunications equipment giant Huawei reminds us that Australia’s whole population is about the size of Shanghai’s, and claims that its name is “slowly but comfortably easing its way into Australian consciousness, not unlike other Asian icons Toyota, Sony, Hyundai and Samsung”.

It’s just not entering the consciousness in the way that it would want — prevented for national security reasons from bidding for roll-out work on the National Broadband Network. Its global rival Cisco also has a submission.

The only widely known business figure to submit his own ideas is the irrepressible miner Owen Hegarty, who says dishearteningly: “Offshore investment can be seen as a leakage of funds, resources, technology and therefore not to be encouraged.”

So the bottom line is: better to do nothing than to risk suggesting anything that might expose you to debate or even failure.

The officials with the white paper process categorise the submissions under four general themes: improving Asia-relevant capabilities, people-to-people links, Asia’s rise and Australia’s competitiveness.

China was the virtual proxy for Asia in many submissions. Other countries that received some special mention were chiefly, in order, Indonesia, Japan, India, South Korea and Vietnam.

A constant thread through the submissions is the idea of doing more with, for and through the Australian expats living and working in Asia. The Myer Foundation estimates there are 120,000 of them — mostly smart, well-connected professionals.

One submission urges the creation of parliamentary electorates to represent such folk. Many of the submissions naturally talk up their own book, telling the white paper drafters what they or their organisations do so well.

Howard Dick, a well-known Asia-business expert at Melbourne and Newcastle universities, is the only person to risk especially raw treatment — meaning, in such a case, being ignored — because he tackles the paper’s very terms of reference.

He notes that economic and political relations are ranked above “society and culture”.

“This reflects Australia’s subordination of ‘soft’ relations to the pragmatic, ‘practical’ matters of business and diplomacy,” he says.

“Funding is allocated accordingly. Asian countries would do the ranking the other way around.

“In Asian cultures, building a relationship of trust is the precondition of doing business and solving problems.”

The terms of reference also implicitly assume, he says, that business, politics and culture are separate categories of interests and expertise. “In Asian eyes they are inseparable.”

Dick says that in most Australian companies, the idea that managers would be put through intensive language training, requiring at least a year, would seem ridiculous. “Most people speak English over there; if not, someone can be brought along to do the translation. . . . The rest is a matter of learning on the job.”

Just as Indonesia is booming, its stockmarket a world-beater, Dick points out that today’s students are even less well equipped to relate to Indonesia than their parents and even grandparents.

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