Asia through the looking glass: history a check-point and signpost to business opportunities

I know this is said often in passing but it is critical I should start by repeating it. It must be recognised the term “Asia” has little meaning beyond a geographical blob on a map – it is a Western colonial concept.

"Don’t assume market similarities in terms of product preferences translate into similarities in how people like to receive information."
Elizabeth Masamune, Managing Director of @Asia Associates

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There is nothing in “Asian” history, way of living, economics, religious or cultural experience that somehow gives a common “Asian” identity to a Japanese entrepreneur, Bangladeshi fisherman and or Indonesian tour guide. As we try to find the right looking-glass through which to view these diverse nations, this is the critical reality.

An understanding of the recent history of the Asian countries in which you are doing business and their relationships with each other can lead to many “a-ha” moments, a greater ability to predict a probable outcome or indeed imagine the possibilities that a regional partnership might provide. And this applies not just to Australians or New Zealanders heading north but to those from different Asian countries moving through the region.

If history has never been your strong suit, no need to rush for the exit. A fundamental understanding is all that is required. A few practical suggestions:

  • Do acquire an understanding of the basic geopolitics. Pack some background reading for the plane. The DFAT website offers excellent country briefs. Other countries have similar "country briefs" sites.
  • Don’t assume market similarities in terms of product preferences translate into similarities in how people like to receive information. For example, Koreans have a far more direct style than Japanese but will likely refrain from publicly commenting on how much they dislike receiving business cards and promotional material with Japanese printed on the back from visitors “stopping over” on the way home from Tokyo. Make sure your presentations are tailor-made for your audience, particularly when travelling between countries with complex historical relationships.
  • History has many interpretations based on where you’re standing. Try to establish early on the popularly held view. For example, whereas Australians have traditionally referred to The Vietnam War (as it was indeed a war between the two halves of Vietnam), the victorious northerners refer to it in conversation and history books as the “American War.” Likewise, the Japanese refer to the Global Financial Crisis as the “Lehman Shock”, indicating their world view that it was caused by external influences.
  • Be aware many of the people you deal with in Asia above a certain age may have experienced some kind of traumatic event that has deeply affected their nation, themselves or their families. Polish your listening skills and obtain some insight into why things happen as they do wherever you happen to be.
  • Stop to think about the relationships between neighbouring countries before deciding on a regional distribution solution. Your Singaporean agent might be close enough to cover Malaysia too but will he/she get a warm reception?
  • Wear your national identity with pride and take note of the questions you are asked. There’s nothing like conversations with taxi drivers to take a litmus test of how locals see your country (if at all), what they don’t see and what you need to do to complete the picture.
  • Finally, don’t be fooled by the “Asia” mystique. At the end of the day, we’re all human and if there is some money to be made, commercial interests will usually prevail. The only problem is failure to fully investigate the other factors that drive decision-making sometimes means you never reach the negotiating table.

Can we see the people of Asian nations in the same way that they see themselves? Can we objectively see ourselves in the same way that they see us? And most importantly, do we have an understanding of how they see and relate to each to other?

I'm an Australian and Australia has a relatively clear line of British colonial history but that makes it all the more important that we Australians study and untangle the often confusing web of intra-Asian relationships that have been the hallmark of the region since 1945. We should not allow ourselves to be lulled into a false dichotomy of “East” and “West” in order to explain our connections and interactions.

Make it your business to be informed and genuinely interested and over time you will build in your own mind a fascinating tapestry of insight and organic understanding of how the various peoples and economies that make up the diverse continent of Asia relate to each other.

This is critical to understanding not only why things are the way they are today but to imagining the possibilities of tomorrow.

From my local perspective (although I am in the middle of relocating back to Japan) as Australian companies try to integrate themselves more closely into Asia, they need to be part of regional solutions to local problems. Possibly even create those solutions.

Understanding how Asians see us, and how they see each other will help us to look beyond the obvious to partnerships of unlikely bedfellows where even greater value may be extracted. National profile, historical track record, political and economic influence on local decision-making and cultural approach to decision-making and trouble-shooting can all be leveraged to create value, in addition to what each party is contributing to the deal itself.

As we look at the big picture, it is clear the rising power of China, the continuing formidable role of Japan, the strategic presence of the United States and the ambitions of other large powers notably India and Indonesia will all play a role in regional dynamics.

The entire region will be affected by these dynamics, and so a basic geopolitical understanding will be critical for the business decisions you make. But we Australians start off on a good basis - Australia is a trusted friend in most countries, and nowhere is it considered a threat to anyone’s interests.

Australia’s future in Asia began long ago. If we are to build on our diverse relationships across the region and move forward, history should serve as a good signpost for which roads to take. While this is true for Australia the broad lessons are true for anyone wanting to engage with "Asia".

Elizabeth Masamune is Managing Director of @Asia Associates, and a former Senior Australian Trade Commissioner for Austrade in North and South East Asia. She has spent over 25 years living and working in Asia.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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