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Asia's future and Australia's missed opportunities.

Understanding our region

After half a century of concerted Asian studies in this country, little that is factual is yet lodged firmly in the consciousness of the average Australian. As our level of dependence on the region increases dramatically, it is a great irony that we are now slipping back in our understanding.

Take, for example, North Korea, where an erratic regime regularly shocks us and the rest of the world with its bellicose posturing. To Australians, it's merely an aberrational legacy of an earlier Stalinist period. True, it is that; but it's also much, much more. And we should know something about it, at least from our basic education. In reality, few Australians under 60 have ever heard of the Korean War (1950-53), a war in which thousands of Australians served and many died. Even fewer Australians have any sense of the history of Northeast Asia and the powerful forces that have been at work there for the past few thousand years. In more recent centuries, in the 1590s, a newly unified Japan under warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi twice invaded Korea as a staging post for a planned attack on China. With the help of Chinese troops, the Koreans repelled the Japanese, though at a heavy cost in terms of human life, infrastructure and national resources.

The Japanese lost face in a way they would never forget and, in the late nineteenth century, with China weakened, they again looked covetously at the Korean Peninsula, eventually taking full control over it in the early 1900s. Korean resources were ruthlessly exploited and a systematic attempt was made by the Japanese to obliterate Korean culture, with Koreans forbidden to speak their own language. The end of the Pacific War in 1945 brought this colonial period to a close, though Korea found itself split in two as a result.

When the North attacked the South in 1950, with the Cold War well under way, hostilities drew in forces from a variety of allied countries on behalf of South Korea. China fought on the side of the North, losing more than a million soldiers in the process.

Of course, the history of Northeast Asia is far more complex than this, but even these bare bones are unknown to most Australians. That's why, when as a nation we get caught up in our own flighty rhetoric, Asians quietly look on in astonishment.

They rarely, if ever, tell us in public what they're thinking; and even if they did we'd tend to dismiss their observations as trivial and nitpicking. But if you've been educated in the region or have lived there for many years, they often will tell you how they react.

Careless mistakes

A good Chinese friend recently highlighted to me an example from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's quick trip to Singapore at the end of May to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue, an Asia-Pacific defence and security gathering. Rudd devoted much of his time at the podium to promoting his idea of an Asian Community. He had first broached this in 2008 without prior consultation with regional leaders, something that was seen as a naive and cocky affront. North Korea's latest antics naturally warranted a mention by our Prime Minister in Singapore, but he made the unfortunate mistake of mispronouncing the name of the capital of North Korea--Pyongyang. That's commonplace in Australia, especially on the ABC, with only a handful of key announcers on SBS bothering to get it right.

But for Rudd, that's unforgivable. The same Chinese friend had also heard our Prime Minister, a renowned Mandarin speaker, refer in other addresses to Taiwan as Taiwon. As most people know, the Won is the currency unit of South Korea. The wan in Taiwan is pronounced one--as in one, two, three.

"Trivial!" most Australians exclaim. "As though tiny mistakes like that matter at all." But they do.

My Chinese friend, who's a graduate in optical engineering from a key Japanese university, put it this way:
  It's like a spy-hole in your front door. If you don't have a lens
  fitted to it, you can't see anything through it. It's just an
  insignificant pinprick you probably don't even notice--just part of
  the grain in the timber. But on our side of the door in Asia we
  interpret things like this differently. When we hear careless
  mistakes, we peer through our lens and see a distinct propensity on
  your part to lay your template over our world and to define it as you
  wish it to be. Constant slip-ups like this indicate to us an
  incapacity and unwillingness to understand the rich and complex
  mosaic of Asia for what it is, rather than what's easy and convenient
  for you to grapple with.

Add to this, the fact that many Australian newsreaders, plus most business people visiting China, refer to the capital of that country as Beixing. Of course, it's pronounced Beijing, just the way it's romanised from Chinese--and this, nearly a year down the track from the global publicity that city received from the Olympic Games! Honestly, you wouldn't think anyone in Australia would still be getting it wrong.

If we can't get things like this right--which, after all, are on the surface of our relationship with Asia--what hope have we got in the brutal battle of wits and wills in which we're now engaged in the region?

Take Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett speaking in February this year about Chinalco's bid for Rio Tinto and the deal's broader implications. "What I'd like to see," he said, "is that we do have Chinese investment in our mining industry, but it be similar to what has happened with Japan from the 1960s--that we get small, stable investments from Chinese steel-mills and Chinese investment groups and that becomes the basis for a long-term relationship." (1)

Nothing wrong with that. In an ideal world, you would have to say it's right on the money. Regrettably, though, we don't live in an ideal world. Far from it. China may not opt for such refined civility. It might not roll over to have its tummy tickled. The reality is that Asia--never a coherent entity as we tend to view it--has strategies, ploys and preferences of which we're often unaware.

Ponder this statement from a vastly different domain. It's Luke Slattery, The Australian's education writer, in that newspaper's Higher Education supplement: (2)
  We do not need, as sinophile Kevin Rudd resolutely believes, a boost
  in Asian language education, at least not for mercantile or strategic
  reasons. China, irrespective of America's commercial fortunes, will
  do business in English. So will India and more or less every other
  nation. Australia needs more language education. The Asian language
  lobby, of which Rudd is a member, persistently confuses its private
  enthusiasms with good public policy.

That's largely antiquated nonsense. What the Asian language lobby--which is comprised of more than language teachers--understands is that, while Australia is a global trader, it needs to specialise for obvious reasons in the region around it.

As Slattery would appreciate, China, India and Japan aren't in the North Atlantic. And besides, though English is now the world's undisputed lingua franca, it's only a means of communication--and now one that is spoken by more non-native speakers than natives. It doesn't define how non-natives think, nor does it describe the strategies they adopt in situations--such as the Rio Tinto deal--that can impact heavily on this country's national interests. The strategic disposition of a people is rooted in their cultural heritage, and language learning is undoubtedly the best point of entry into that world of difference.

That's what the Asian language lobby is principally on about. It's only too aware of the fact that our region isn't defined in Anglo-Saxon terms, despite what more gullible types here choose to believe about India. It's also aware--and this is the nub--that the Australian system, whether political, bureaucratic, commercial, academic or social, is still defined in those terms. And why shouldn't it be? That's our heritage.

Failures in diplomacy

The problem is that, despite successive waves of Australians going out and working, living and studying in Asia, plus significant immigration from there as well, this has had only marginal influence on the way Canberra and most of our state capitals think. Canberra is as remote today from understanding what's going on in the Chinese mind as it was 50 years ago. You don't gain promotion by highlighting the differences in practical ways.

I recall a meeting I attended in the national capital some 25 years ago, having just returned from a posting in Tokyo. The topic of discussion was a grand idea to which we wanted the Japanese to subscribe. Present at the meeting were representatives of various parts of the bureaucratic machine. Someone suggested that because I was fresh out of Japan I might like to offer a view. I pointed out respectfully that rather than make a demarche to the Japanese at a high political level, it might perhaps be more effective to have a junior officer in our embassy feed the idea in via his contacts. The Japanese at that level would be more likely to adopt the idea as their own and then feed it up the hierarchy for approval.

The mandarin chairing the meeting looked at me aghast. "Good God," he observed sarcastically, "you sound as though you've gone troppo. If you love 'em so much, why the hell don't you go back and live there?"

His quip had as much to do with my having challenged the efficacy of the line he had himself been pushing as it did with our differing approaches to Asia. But the warning was there: don't know too much about the new world around us. And if you do, keep it to yourself.

Not much has changed, and as some older Asia hands will tell you, we've slipped back noticeably.

A decade ago, on a visit to Japan, a Japanese friend from university days in Tokyo told me about a trip he was soon to make to Singapore for his company, a major trading concern. A large gathering of overseas Chinese business leaders from around the world was due to take place there, which, incidentally, had nothing to do with his firm. His task was to lead a "technical team" whose job it would be to film--and where possible, record--the degree of closeness that a small target list of the Chinese attending shared with each other. The Japanese company regarded this as important because it could usefully inform its investment plans across the Asian region.

As the hotel involved was well known to both of us, my friend and I discussed the operation in detail. It was a fascinating example of industrial espionage. Later, on a visit to Canberra, I happened to mention this to a few bureaucrats whom one would have expected to display interest. But no, they thought such an exercise would have been a waste of time. However, from what my Japanese friend told me afterwards, he and his team reaped a "rich harvest".

Shortcomings of Western education

Interestingly, the put-down I received from the mandarin in Canberra reminds me of a similar incident I witnessed while studying in the law faculty of Tokyo University some 35 years ago. Foreign researchers were then pretty thin on the ground.

In a weekly meeting chaired by the dean (accorded almost divine status in Japan), an irreverent American mused aloud in Japanese about the rigidities of that country's education system. The dean hyperventilated.

"So you think your system has all of the finest attributes," he queried acerbically, "and ours, none?"

You could have heard a pin drop. We all sat tight, especially the American.

"You see," the dean said, "you Westerners might think we Japanese are short on creativity, and, to a degree, you have a point. But in your eagerness to prove an either-or situation--that you're all good and we're bad--you overlook the inherent strengths of our system."

He continued: "True, we're big on rote-learning, but that's not just because we love robotic functions. It's because we know that it's that method that gives young people a structure into which to fit all they learn. It also gives them a perspective, angles to see things from, even a sense of social and intellectual proportion. That's one attribute."

The American nodded. The explanation was clearly as much a critique of what the Western system lacked.

"And another," the dean went on, "is that, in this rote process that you have such a low opinion of, we put great emphasis on studying the classics, which in most cases are simply Chinese historical works. And, as you know, they're steeped in wisdom and strategy."

He cast an avuncular glance at the American, seeking acknowledgement of the point he had made. Everybody nodded. It was the sort of deference that the dean commanded when he felt moved to elucidate something so rudimentary.

"What's that expression you have in English?" he asked, as though conversing with the picture of a crusty old Meiji professor on the wall. "Yes, 'method in madness'. I've always liked that turn of phrase. Perhaps that's what describes our approach best of all."

The Japanese language is exquisitely designed for sarcasm and I never fully appreciated what the British meant by "brutal subtlety" until I studied it.

"Our system might not be as conducive to creative thinking as it should be," the dean added, "but, if there's one thing it does do, it teaches students how to discipline their minds and order their thoughts."

He was right, not only in his context but in ours as well. Now, nearly four decades later, one shudders to think what the shortcomings of the Australian education system are doing to our youthful minds.

Under-preparedness of Australians

In the space of just a few generations Australians have moved from one end of the learning spectrum, where we actually shared a lot with the Japanese, to the other. What we seem to be doing in this country is equipping young people with handfuls of flesh to stick on a human model but failing to give them a skeleton to begin with. By any measure, that's madness in method.

Failings in our approach to learning about Asia were highlighted at the end of May in an insightful think-piece posted by an Australian student from the Australian National University on the ANU's East Asia Forum website. (3) Henry Makeham is in his final year of law and Asian Studies and recently did a stint at Peking University (oddly, the name the Chinese prefer in English).

He points out that Peking University is China's top academic institution. Each year, every position in its school of management and finance receives roughly 30,000 applicants. "If you get the opportunity to study there, like I did," he writes, "you are studying with some of the most ambitious, intelligent and hard-working students on the planet."

It is a university that has been at the heart of intellectual, social and political movements in modern Chinese history, and, as Makeham says, it is a great privilege to experience the inner workings of an institution that commands such a powerful place in the modern Chinese psyche. He recalls:
  After a year and a half of mingling with Peking University students
  and meeting internationals from world-class institutions like
  Harvard, Yale and Oxford, I came to the sobering conclusion that
  Australian graduates are grossly under-prepared to compete
  effectively in the globalised Asian job market.

  Among the thousands of impressions etched in my memory, this is the
  one that startled me most. In an era of deep globalisation, where
  thousands of graduates applying for the same position in Hong Kong
  hail from New Delhi to Ningbo, there is still a dearth of
  Asia-literate Australian graduates.

How, he asks, over the course of coming decades can monolingual Australian graduates, with little or no experience in China or Asia, realistically expect to survive in the region? He describes how Chinese students work until their dorm lights flicker out at 11 pm, after which they relocate to brightly-lit diners in the nearby McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken establishments. He says:
  These students might represent the nerds; but in Peking the nerds
  are the norm. The hunger to succeed pervades--and they are proud of

  There is no "tall poppy" syndrome there, only admiration--and, of
  course, envy and jealousy--for those who "make it". Winning a
  graduate school scholarship to an Ivy League school in America, or a
  well-paid job with a multinational in Hong Kong is the ultimate goal.

This, he says, should be a salutary wake-up call to Australian graduates. He calls it "globalisation, up close and personal". In the Asian job market your competitors are bilingual or trilingual graduates from top-tier universities, all of which are globally recognised.

The irony is that, despite a slowdown brought on by the global financial crisis, young Australians who are Asia-literate are increasingly sought after by Asian multinationals. Salaries are often higher than in Australia, and tax can be ridiculously low.

With the smarter segment of our population willing to adapt to different thought patterns, languages and lifestyles, Australia may find that its ageing society isn't its only problem. We may hollow out at the same time: growing old at one end of the spectrum while being intellectually depleted at the other.

This is the real world in which Australia must carve out a workable future for itself in the region. In no way will our natural resources guarantee that we can continue to do that on our own terms.

But don't look for meaningful action any time soon--not while Asian studies in Australia are dropping away, while the country's diplomatic service is being cruelly gutted and as a society we are losing the capacity to cleanse ourselves and put in a better performance.

For those of us who were part of the exciting Asian studies process decades ago, we never imagined that things would end up like this. But then, reality always is what it is, before it's ever what you want it to be. And no amount of rhetoric can save us from that.

(1.) "Federal Government mulls Chinese investment in Australia", The World Today, ABC Local Radio, 19 February 2009.

(2.) Luke Slattery, "Let's get more competitive", The Australian, 21 January 2009: Higher Education supplement.

(3.) Henry Makeham, "Beijing and the reality of international competition", East Asia Forum, 22 May 2009.


Warren Reed was one of the first wave of Australians to spend key formative years studying, thinking and working in cultures in the region that are very different from our own. After National Service in the Australian army and university studies, he worked in Japan for Australian resources interests, spent 10 years as an intelligence officer in Asia and the Middle East, and was later chief operating officer of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).
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Author:Reed, Warren
Publication:National Observer - Australia and World Affairs
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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