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China's cupcakes and Australia's Asia fear


Cupcake with white icing and hundreds and thousandsAsia, Paul Keating once observed, is 'the place you fly over' on your way to the real cultural centres of the world ... in Europe. He's changed his mind since.

But for the person who did a great deal to develop APEC — the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation organisation — it was a steep learning curve because for Keating most of his reference points were Atlantic: European and north American. 

The report that Ross Garnaut produced in 1989 helped break down the enduring focus on Europe and the US. Garnaut went a long way to describing how Australia could avail itself of the opportunity in Asia in business terms, something that the mining industry had been doing with Japan through its immense growth period.

The Australian Government's white paper Australia in the Asian Century isn't exactly breaking news when it tells us the fastest growing economies and the greatest opportunities for Australia are at our doorstep. But like kids at a birthday party, we seem to focus more on the cupcakes than the host and guest of honour. And there's not a lot of a practical nature that suggests ways the reports content's will become more than aspirations.

Why do we need to be reminded of something we already know? And what does this white paper say about how politics work Australia, where Australia really is in relation to the opportunities and, if it's been so obvious for so long, why do we need rousing exhortations from the Prime Minister to try harder?

Politically, you might appreciate ASEAN nations' judgement that they don't want Australia any closer. From the Asian perspective, Australian approaches to the region are fickle and opportunistic — we're in things where there's something in it for us (like the reduction of trade barriers); then we're not, like when we push back boats of asylum seekers, a policy devoid of multilateral considerations. We engage with the region when it suits us.

This fickle, ambiguous and opportunistic approach leaves Australia with neither the credibility nor the relationships to deliver a better outcome for all parties.

But the real problem is at a cultural level — inside Australia. For a country whose second most spoken language is Chinese, whose immigration quota had more Chinese than English migrants two years ago, you only have to press a few sensitive buttons and all the fears emerge.

Not just fear of the relatively few asylum seekers who reach Australia by boat, or the fear that allows Alan Jones and Barnaby Joyce to talk about 'selling the farm to Asians' and be believed. It a broader culture of fear, which bubbles to the surface any time a politician or shock jock wants a ratings hit. The fear is deep in Australia.

The only antidote to fear in any area of life is engagement and experience which take a person away from abstractions, stereotypes and self-protective generalisations. But despite lots of travel to Asia, Australians don't seem to have the sort of experience that defuses the fear.

How do Australians find out what's happening in Asia? Who's letting Australians be informed about their region?

How many Australians know India's growth has been in decline for almost 18 months? That China is a place of widespread civil disturbance as the uneven wealth distribution in the country makes for constant social unrest? Do Australians know that the rising stars of Asia are not China, Korea and India but Indonesia and Vietnam?

If not, why not? Our myopic media, of course. Our televisions are full of live coverage of familiar scenes — the US primaries and the stump speeches in the US presidential election, news of the fading economies of Europe, and the tedious repartee that comes with minority government.

It doesn't have to be that way. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC and CNN do more for their audiences than Australian media services could ever dream of.

Without an informed view, fear wins.

It is easy to be cynical about this white paper, which states the obvious at great length. Governments habitually welcome the 'fresh insights' and 'bold proposals' of white papers only to dismantle them for immediate political ends. Just look at how the Henry Tax Review was picked at and scratched until it bled to death.

Considering how long this latest paper took to see daylight, and the fact that the committee assigned to develop it had its efforts reworked by the Department of Foreign Affairs, makes you wonder what function it serves. Does it provide a map to the future, as it boasts? Or are its objectives of a more short-term nature, allowing the ALP to steal a march as it prepares for the upcoming election?

Commendable and well informed as the claims about opportunities are, where is the enablement to see the opportunities become achievement? The paper looks just like another exercise in political window dressing when, in reality, the same old practices that have left the opportunity unrealised for so long will be allowed to prosper.

Michael Kelly headshotFr Michael Kelly SJ, founding publisher of Eureka Street, is the Bangkok based executive director of UCA News and was, in the 1980s, executive director of the Jesuits' Asian Bureau Australia.


Topic tags: Michael Kelly, Paul Keating, Asia, Ross Garnaut



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Existing comments

I couldn't be bothered to read the 'new' direction because it all sounded so very, well, rehearsed and, well, familiar as well as, well, trite, when I heard Fran blathering on about it with 'someone' the other day. Let's take schools as a good starting point. More fiddling for no real good purpose within schools from the Commonwealth, that will be undone by the next mob in. As I recall, foreign languages were in with the ALP some years ago, then out with Howard and his drones, now Gillard has discovered them again. Big deal. The problem I noticed when my daughters, who all did Mandarin, were at school was that not only were the primary schools not treating it seriously but neither did most parents, who could see no reason to learn 'Chink' or anything else for that matter. The high school 'preferred' German, a real world language, eh? There is no point filling papers with 'good ideas' unless the population has it explained to them that there is a good point to learning foreign languages, so the parents do not undermine the marginal efforts of the schools, the teachers and the 'national interest'. There's a reason so many speak English around the world - those people speak extra languages beyond their own native tongue.

janice wallace | 31 October 2012  

Where to begin? Is it to articulate the goal we as a nation are to aim for in our relationships with the countries of Asia? Or is it more important to make a fearless and moral inventory of what our current position and attitudes are? I think the latter is the more important question. If our current attitude is one of distain and our position is lack of trust, (or whatever the inventory throws up), then the change has to begin with us. I believe there is no more important subject than social psychology. Governments and community leaders need to take a good look at the social forces in Australia that are relatively unalterable by single individuals. On a recent trip to Indonesia with a group of Australians (not all Australian born) I was disappointed to find that the prevailing attitude was: "You can't trust them, you know. They are all smiles to your face but they are just out to take advantage of you." I doubt if learning Indonesian would have altered the attitude of such people one little bit.

Uncle Pat | 31 October 2012  

It is good to start by learning about our own history. This author would damn Paul Keating with slighting remarks about his views of Asia, not wanting to recognise that Keating was being ironic in his descriptions of Asia as a place we fly over to Europe. Keating is the PM who drove the push into Asia. It is due to Keating that articles like this are even being written in 2012. Keating would more than agree with the Cupcake Thesis, but so would Kevin Rudd and many others in the only party that has made this an issue, historically. Keating’s push into Asia had a enormous impact on Australian cultural life. Although we read about our friend the US in the media, and about Europe, the Australian cultural inheritance of Europe has been sidelined since Keating, the funding has gone elsewhere, and this in itself is an issue not properly considered by the cultural commentators. A whole generation of Australians, including the author of the above article, were brought up with a Eurocentric view of Australia and the world, only to find that Asia is where the action is. This division in Australia’s understanding of the world has much to do with its present cultural conflicts, uncertainty and malaise. Also, it thinks culture comes from outside when in fact Australia we are standing in it. Keating, for example, was gung-ho for Asia, but spent the evenings winding his Empire clocks and listening to Mahler.He also gave the Redfern Speech.

BUNYIP BLUEGUM | 31 October 2012  

Fr Michael Kelly SJ,"Without an informed view, fear wins". **************************** On the other hand, with a PRE-formed view, every piece of information received is filtered and interpreted, or even distorted, to fit in with the pre-fomed view. Often the greatest obstacle to finding Truth is to be convinced that we already know it. Many Australians think that our Judeo-Christian heritage is the acme of cultural and religious expression, and that all others should be subordinated to it. There is a lot we should learn from the spirit of Fr Matteo Ricci,S.J.

Robert Liddy | 31 October 2012  

"Where is the enablement?" This is surely the crucial question. But it is also a vital question for our local Catholic Church. While we increasingly accept priests ordained in Asia I don't see any evidence of our bishops citing papers of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conference (FABC) as authoritative guides to where our theological direction. Some of the most vital recent theology comes from Asia but we remain embedded in the past. We should be engaged in a dialogue with the Asian church to "enable" us to grow into the Catholic church we claim to be.

Roger | 31 October 2012  

We desperately need to move beyond the "same old practices" that jeopardise our chances to turn aspirations about Australia in the Asian century into practical commitments. I wrote about imaginings of Asia in the 1890s and 1990s, looking at government via APEC, business, the work of Australian architects in Asia, and public imaginings mainly through media representations. Paul Keating used to berate Australia’s dark forces of racism among the general population. But our imaginings were stratified between government and business elites, who were meeting with, and learning about, and from people from Asia, as opposed to people who may go on holiday to an Asian country but who did not have such regular contact. The white paper says little about how to engender informal contact in people-to-people links. You cannot criticise people for not knowing much about a country if the people dealing with the country do not disseminate information widely. We need to see behind-the-scenes at a food stall; we need more magazines like Habitus, which features designers from Thailand the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, for instance, alongside ones from Australia and New Zealand as equals. We need to know more about ordinary people doing ordinary things, to become familiar with Asian society, with people from Asia, with all their good points and their foibles rather than just their GDPs and economic potential.

Deborah Singerman | 31 October 2012  

Beyond the White Paper,is the frank and open dialogue of Synodal Chinese bishops with Pope and Curia, and the Vatican press statement that followed,with the explicit reference to the sufferance of many bishops, priests and faithful who have maintained a clear and limpid loyalty to the Catholic faith and the Holy See. It was also recognised publicly and explicitly for the first time by the Holy See, that the great majority of bishops from the official Church are in communion with the Holy Father. they are a declaration of the failure of the Chinese regimes religious policies, which has been trying for decades to create a national Church independent of Rome”. “The reference to the divine constitution of the Church is also very important: it is governed by bishops, the apostles successors, in communion with Peter, their head. The church in China instead is still submitted to the control of an Association wanted by the political party and manipulated by a certain Liu Bainian, who persists in carrying out an incredible quantity of injustices against Catholics. He, in fact, holds primary responsibility for the illegitimate consecrations in 2000 and 2006, which created profound divisions and conflicts between the Catholic communities”.

father john george | 31 October 2012  

Due to a misreading,the reference in my last post should have been to a Chinese episcopate meeting with the Holy Father in 2007. The following is the link to a recent 2012 Synodal Letter of solidarity with chinese bishops[both of these posted 'china references' are deserving of close study]. http://www.zenit.org/rssenglish-35803 My apologies!!

father john george | 31 October 2012  

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