Australia's economy has been doing so well out of mining for China it may come as a surprise to hear the good times won't last forever without fuller engagement with Asia. That's the message of a government white paper called "The Asian century". It is similar to a report to the government 23 years ago by economic adviser and former envoy to China Ross Garnaut, which shows no one took much notice of that.
All these years after Garnaut said protectionism should end, Australian industry still shelters behind about A$18 billion (HK$152 billion) of assistance and tariff barriers. Other examples of complacency abound. For example, only 6 per cent of year 12 students study an Asian language, yet the paper does not mention funding Asian-language teachers. Critics put some blame on unbalanced media coverage. One fifth of the world's population lives in China, Australia's biggest trading partner, but two of its leading broadsheet newspapers maintain only one permanent correspondent there between them.
Hopefully the government will heed its own white paper, which highlights the importance of education about Asia as well as its languages, and of more productivity and economic flexibility so that Australian companies can compete with Asian firms at home as well as abroad. After all, engagement is a two-way street, as we are reminded by recent opposition to Chinese investment. The white paper says China is not among the top 10 foreign investors, with only 1 per cent of the total stake. A recent poll that found less support for Asian investment than for learning languages, and even less for Asian immigration, shows the need for attitudes to evolve with the times.
A free flow of investment and people is essential to Australia's prosperity in the Asian century. After all, immigration has already transformed the "lucky country", with nearly two million residents having been born in Asia. If the white paper's vision of more meaningful engagement is fleshed out, the region, as well as Australia, will be better for it.