"Whatever else this century brings along, it will bring Asia's rise".
When the government released the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper last year, it set 25 key objectives to help Australia tap into the Asian opportunity by 2025.
Amid the volume of commentary the paper attracted was questioning on exactly how those objectives would be achieved.
That's that makes the recent announcement of a new Implementation Plan so important, even though the news was barely noticed in the noise surrounding the Prime Minister's April visit to China, where she struck a historic 'strategic partnership' deal with Chinese premier Li Kequiang.
The two events are not unconnected. Both the strategic partnership (which has locked in annual leadership talks and ministerial discussions between Australia and China) and the Implementation Plan are proof that the White Paper is beginning to flesh out its promises, and has become an important diplomatic tool into the bargain.
The White Paper was largely designed to lift Australian capabilities in managing the Asia relationship. But it was crucial to the Prime Minister's recent successful pursuit of a strategic partnership with China because it had an enormously positive diplomatic effect on our key relationships in Asia. The paper has now similarly laid the foundations of a blueprint to form a strategic partnership with India.
The benefit of these partnerships is that they are institutional arrangements that lock in multiple access points for Australia across all areas of the Chinese and Indian governments. They offer crucial high-level, regular access that allows us to work across the vast bureaucracies of these major Asian powers, rather than blindly seeking the 'right person' to deal with.
Building on the strategic partnership success, the new White Paper Implementation Plan further clarifies paths of action and time-frames to achieve the White Paper's 25 key objectives. That includes a focus in 2014-2018 on 'building deeper understanding and relationships in the region and broader economic integration and connectivity'.
A major part of the plan, and the White Paper's overall success, is our ability as a country to grow our 'Asia literacy' across all levels of Australian society – government, business, education and community.
The plan highlights:
- A need for the public sector to develop a deeper understanding of its role in helping to secure Asian Century benefits. At the Australian Government level, it will be necessary for the Australian Public Service (APS) to change. To achieve this, the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the APS Commissioner are developing a capability strategy for the APS, to be released in 2013.
- School leaders and education authorities will play a leading role preparing young Australians for the Asian Century by ensuring studies of Asia become a core part of school education. It is expected that all schools will encourage their students to study an Asian language.
- Businesses can be big winners in the Asian Century. However, to realise this, Australia will need more business leaders with an understanding of Asia, including more with Asian language skills. Business will also need more employees with Asia-relevant capabilities at the entry and middle-management level.
- Sport can play an integral role in building relations with our Asian neighbours through diplomacy, trade and business. This will be particularly true in the coming years, with Australia hosting the Asian Cup for football and the Cricket World Cup.
The Implementation Plan has also outlined governance arrangements as well as key people and bodies who will be involved in bringing the White Paper to life.
Dr Craig Emerson has been appointed as the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Asian Century Policy. Three new people have been appointed to the Asian Century Strategic Advisory Board: Hamish Tyrwhitt, CEO of Leighton Holdings (who has been appointed chair); Professor Margaret Gardner AO, Vice-Chancellor of RMIT; and Rebecca Dee-Bradbury, President, Developed Markets, Asia Pacific of Kraft Foods.
However the real challenge remains how Australia goes about becoming a genuinely connected part of the region. This needs to happen through partnerships shaped with Asia over time, and by working together on matters of government, business and education that show a commitment from all parties to each other's prosperity.
These bedrock relationships lead to direct as well as unanticipated benefits. Just ask the cherry growers in Tasmania who discovered that a friendly Korean tourist happened to be the head of a major conglomerate - and ultimately the provider of a major contract to ship premium product into Asia.
We can't plan specifically for such serendipity. But by progressing the White Paper's goals under the new Implementation Plan and creating deeper relationships, we can – with countless small but positive interactions – nurture the circumstances that create it.
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