Australia is having a big year. It is not just a critical election year – one that would test the incumbent conservative government – but also the 50th anniversary of the establishment of China-Australia diplomatic relations. It’s also been 10 years since a monumental white paper titled “Australia in the Asian Century” was put out by then-PM Julia Gillard’s government. The white paper was considered groundbreaking at the time, and regarded as the blueprint by which Australia would become part of Asia’s transformative economic growth. There was excitement all round. The Australian embassy in Beijing had a webpage dedicated to the white paper and think tanks pored over it. It espoused more engagement between Australia and its Asian neighbours including China, and highlighted the economic and cultural benefits in stronger ties with countries like India , Japan and Vietnam . China must engage Australia to boost CPTPP chances: trade minister Australia would not just be financially richer but culturally wealthier, the paper said, suggesting more Asian languages be taught in Australian schools to aid better cultural understanding. Unfortunately, what the white paper recommended has not come to pass. There has been a decline in the variety of Asian languages being taught in Australian schools and universities. Research by the Asian Studies Association of Australia has revealed some Australians find languages like Mandarin “too foreign”. China’s assertiveness in the region and “anti-China” language by Australian officials have fuelled discrimination against Asians; there have been cases where Mandarin phrases like ni hao (how are you?) have been used to heckle people of Asian or Chinese descent on the street. Asian-Australians, who make up 13 to 14 per cent of the population, have felt increasingly pressured to distance themselves from China – even those who are ethnic Chinese but are not from the mainland. By and large, Australia today has not met the aspirations set out in the white paper to be part of the Asian century, unless you count the A$250 billion (US$186 billion) two-way trade relationship with China as the bellwether of success. This is an opportune time to try to turn things around as a new government takes office. In January, when China’s new Ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian arrived in Canberra, he made a speech that observers characterised as “positive” against the backdrop of the tumultuous bilateral relationship over the past seven years. Beyond managing ties with China, Australia should look to improving ties with Southeast Asia, a region that many Australians have connections to. Australia’s Southeast Asia links of more concern than China ties: ex-PM Rudd The new Australian government must balance what I would describe as an Anglo-American infatuation with a genuine interest in Asia-Pacific rather than view ties through a geopolitical or security lens. A survey by think tank Lowy Institute said Australia should try and understand that people living in neighbouring Indonesia do not see the world “through a bipolar US-China lens”. Australia can demonstrate sincerity by taking part in the region’s green economy transition since it is a renewables superpower. Australia has a major competitive advantage due to its significant renewable energy resources, Melbourne University Asia Institute’s Melissa Conley Tyler has noted, and Australia can also work with Asia on things that matter to the region, such as human security, health and education. Forget geopolitics for a minute and look at what pragmatic bodies like Australia’s scientific research agency, the CSIRO, had to say in a publication about securing a better future for Australia – “find opportunities that embrace the invaluable resources in Asian and Pacific communities”.