top of page

Adaptation to the Asian Century

Photo: Jorge Láscar,

Scott Reid

In October 1895, Mr E. Jerome Dyer spoke to the Supper Hall of the Melbourne Town Hall. Gathered around him was a select of the business and politics community of Melbourne, moderate in number but representative and influential. His talk was called ‘Australia and the Asia Pacific’. Having just returned from Japan, Dyer had been a commercial agent for the Victorian Government. After various postings, he was now convinced of the benefits of free trade between Australia and Asian countries, and that they would heavily outweigh any potential disadvantages.

In pressing his case, Dyer spoke of the huge markets emerging in the Asia-Pacific region, commenting that a “wise Providence” had not only placed Australia near Asia but had also given her a climate able to produce the products that Asia required. He predicted, “The time will not be far distant when the importance we attach to European markets will be more than evenly shared by those Eastern countries.” The meeting chair, Mr W. Madden, aptly supported Dyer’s position.

On the 12th March 2019, Mr Andrew Parker spoke at Dyason House to the Australian Institute of International Affairs on ‘Australian Economic Engagement with Indonesia’. A strange thing seemed to happen, a replica of the evening in 1895 playing out. Mr Parker spoke of the unlimited possibilities for Australian enterprise, “he who dares wins”, and alarming evidence that our business community is entirely under-prepared for the rise and further rise of the East.

However, Australian-Asian regional engagement has adapted and evolved over time in a manner that reflects a maturation between our historical and cultural roots and our geographical reality. This recalibration of our attitudes has seen us come to terms as a partner in assisting Asia’s transition from relative poverty to affluence, and this trade relationship is growing at twice the rate of its European counterparts. The United Kingdom may have been our main trading partner in the 1950s, but we have successfully adapted to new and upcoming forms of globalisation, including the rise of China (our new main trading partner). 187,547 Chinese international students enrolled to study in Australia in 2017–18 alone, bringing in over $10 billion to our economy and situating us as an educational powerhouse for the Asian elite.

Meanwhile for Australian students, $62 million was committed to Asian literacy in 2007 under the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program. The New Colombo Plan is another example of our vision to the future, as stated by DFAT; “by the end of 2020, the New Colombo Planalumni will have grown to around 40,000 young Australians with experience of living, studying and undertaking work experiences in the Indo-Pacific.”

This two-way exchange between Australian development and Asian development is not solely relegated to our relationship with China. Indonesia is the largest recipient of Australian aid and the site of our biggest diplomatic post. This relationship sees regular high level meetings between Foreign and Defence Ministers and heads of state – President Joko Widodo has visited Australia three times since 2014. Tangible evidence of our bilateral relationship includes the Lombok Treaty, Joint Declaration on Maritime Cooperation, the Australian-Indonesian Institute, Australian-Indonesian initiative Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation and more recently the Indonesian-Australian Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement.

The age-old scene of a learned and experienced agent of Australian interests warning and teaching the wider Australian community about untold opportunities awaiting us in the Asia region is all too common. Whether it be J. Currie Elles at a public lecture at Adelaide University 90 years ago or the Institute of Pacific Relations in the 1930s, we are constantly reminded that we are no longer a colonial trading outpost and did not need a war of independence as an expression of sovereignty. Embracing engagement with Asia has always been, and always will be, a matter of nationhood. For Australia, sovereignty and international assertion in our sphere of influence (which happens to be over a vast concentration of economic wealth) is confluent with Asian development. We are not doomed to living a historical narrative of opportunity, in fact Australian efforts to adapt and evolve are commendable. It was mere decades ago that we had a white Australia policy in place. We should be proud of how far we have come.

Scott Reid is a Politics and Media student at the University of Melbourne and President of the Political Interest Society.