Is Australia really prepared for the Asian Century?

We are in the Asian Century but what does that mean? For Australia, there is a challenge in simply recognising the importance of understanding Asia and the varied cultures and the languages. But what is Australia's real understanding of the region and is it greater than it might have been 20 or 30 years ago?

In July the non-partisan think tank the Lowy Institute held a panel event in Melbourne to discuss the findings of its recent poll 'What Australians really think about the world'. Some findings were obvious enough: Australians are more concerned about terrorism than about war with China and welcome China's input to the country's economic growth even as they worry about investment in real estate.

"Most Australians do not know who Shinzo Abe, Narendra Modi or Xi Jinping are and two thirds believe Indonesia is not a democracy."
Helen Clark, Freelance journalist

However, two findings were surprising: most Australians do not know who Shinzo Abe, Narendra Modi or Xi Jinping are. Two thirds believe Indonesia is not a democracy - and this despite much reporting of the executions of the "Bali Nine" drug traffickers centering on Joko Widodo's election promises. In fact, according to Lowy, 42 per cent of Australians don't know who 'Jokowi' is.


Indonesia may be Australia's largest neighbour and second only to the United States as a holiday spot for Australians but the relationship has often felt a little strained. This year Indonesia is at a record low on Lowy's thermometer, which measures feelings towards other countries, at 42 degrees. North Korea, the lowest, rates 29 degrees, for comparison.

Lowy's Alex Oliver, who helped to organise the poll, told BlueNotes those who do not believe it is a democracy are making a value judgement.

“Scepticism of Indonesia indicated in past polling – that it is 'controlled by the military' or 'Australia is right to worry about Indonesia as a military threat' colours our views of the quality of its democracy today," she says.

Is this a sign Australians' knowledge of Asia is at a low point? Politically and economically it remains engaged, from the three free-trade deals signed with major Asian economies recently to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's recent turn at the East Asia Summit in Malaysia and her enthusiasm for increasing trade with Indonesia (which, as she points out, is less than trade with New Zealand).

At the same time Australia's idea of the Asian Century has largely been predicated on what I've previously called 'the evergreen promise of China's growing middle class' and China's need for resources.

China is Australia's largest trading partner but the rest of Asia is equally important and cultural engagement is key to trade as much as tariffs. This 2012 White Paper from ANZ makes exactly that point.

“More must be done to build our political, social and economic relationships and to broaden the responsibility for doing so," the report says. “We cannot rely on our physical proximity and natural resources to somehow 'deliver' the mutual benefits achievable through closer integration."

Understanding the varied region, and maybe knowing who's in charge of the world's most populous nation and our largest trading partner, begins with Australia.

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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