Australia in the Asian Century

For the first time in its history, Australia finds itself located in the right place at the right time - in the Asian region in the Asian century. Every Australian entrepreneur, investor, business leader, and organisation has an opportunity to take advantage of the changing dynamics within our region by leveraging the new opportunities created by rapid developments in urbanisation, consumption and innovation. Asia’s emerging middle class of aspirational consumers offers opportunities in many areas where Australia leads the world, particularly in food, agriculture, healthcare, education and tourism, not to mention mining and resources which has already prospered from Asia’s urbanisation program.

However, this is a challenging time for many Australians as we contemplate our colonial past (with the UK and Europe) our special relationship with the USA (which is mainly based on strategic military ties and diplomatic collaboration) and our trading future with Asia (particularly China, Japan, Korea and Indonesia). These are unique challenges for our political and business leaders to grapple with as we re-think the position of “Modern Australia” a bold new multi-cultural society seeking to find its way in the Asian Century.

The future prosperity of Australia must surely depend on our ability to strengthen and deepen our relationship with China, the next global economic super-power and the economic engine of the Asian region. China is “modernising” not “westernising” and is barely recognisable from the country that emerged from communist rule in the late 70s and opened up to the world in the 80s and 90s. Now a world leader in technology, clean energy and high end manufacturing with the ability to innovate at speed on a scale never seen before, China’s processes, regulations and logistical networks are now highly sophisticated and their markets have become more transparent and accessible to foreign companies and businesses.

So far, Australia has been slow to take advantage, and nervous to participate, almost as if we don’t fully trust China’s ability to keep everything going. We saw Japan prosper and then falter in 1991. Now we worry about whether we can deepen our trade relationship with China whilst maintaining our military ties with the US.  What would we do if we had to make a choice?

In my view, we worry too much about these things. Australia is a traditionally conservative society and has never been good at accepting or adapting to change. Political leaders are too scared to make bold long term reforms due to a three year election cycle and, despite many attempts, referendums have never succeeded in passing bold constitutional reforms.

As with our past, our future depends on our ability to welcome immigrants to Australia so as to accelerate our participation in the Asian Century. The Asian-Australian community is already strong and growing, and can play an important role in building bridges between our colonial past and Asian facing future. Success in Asia depends on our ability to master a number of complex and unfamiliar challenges, in particular differences in language and culture, and the need to build trusted relationships, local knowledge and to access new sources of capital. “Old Australia” will never be able to do this without the support and assistance of “New Australians” with Asian backgrounds, experience and connections. It’s time to open our doors to Asian skilled migrants, develop new innovation hubs in regional centres (not in over-crowded cities straining from creaking infrastructure) and bring Asia to Australia. This approach has worked well in the past and can transform our future.

Are we bold enough to give it a try?