House debates

Thursday, 3 December 2015


Asian Century

11:52 am

Photo of Tim WattsTim Watts (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Most members of this chamber will agree that Australia's future prosperity depends on our making our way in the Asian century. It is well known that four out of our five top trading partners are Asian nations. Indeed, 10 of our top 15 trading partners are countries in Asia.

For Australia to prosper in the Asian century we need to truly enmesh ourselves in the region—economically, but also culturally and strategically. In a demographic sense this is already happening. Today, Chinese Australians and Indian Australians are our third and fourth largest migrant groups, and their numbers are growing rapidly.

The number of Chinese-born Australians has doubled, going from just over 200,000 to almost 450,000 in the decade to 2014. In the same period, the number of Indian Australians almost tripled, from around 130,000 to almost 400,000. It is often noted that Beijing is geographically closer to Berlin than it is to Sydney, but it is indisputable that Australia's human geography is far closer to our regional neighbours in Asia, than Europe's will ever be.

Each member of these diaspora communities in Australia offers us a human bridge to better understanding of and better engagement with the region in which we live. However, there is much more work to be done. Indeed, a 2015 report for the Australian Council of Learned Academies, Smart Engagement with Asia, recently highlighted a soft power deficit in the attitudes and understanding of Asians to Australia. Outdated and inaccurate perceptions of Australia as a monocultural colonial outpost in the region persist amongst our neighbours. At the same time, levels of understanding of our region by the Australian public can be alarmingly low. It is a personal frustration to me that around only one in three Australians realises that our immediate neighbour to the north, Indonesia, is a democracy.

The upshot of the lack of mutual understanding is that we cannot afford to allow our relationships in the region—the Indo-Pacific—to be the work of diplomats alone. We need to build as many of these bridges of individual understanding as possible. Track 1.5 and Track 2 diplomacy initiatives, that bring together non-official academics, religious activists, leaders of non-government organisations, civil society experts and individual members of our community are crucially important.

That is why I am pleased to be taking part in two youth dialogues over the coming months that bring together young Australians with young people from two of our most important partners in the region, the Indo-Pacific—China and India. Tomorrow I will be travelling to Brisbane for the Australia-China Youth Dialogue. The ACYD brings together 15 young Australians and 15 young Chinese who are emerging leaders in their fields of expertise.

The dialogue was established in the wake of a 2009 article by Dr Stephen FitzGerald, Australia's first ambassador to China after 1949, which highlighted the need for more institutions that facilitated both government and non-government dialogue between Australia and China. As Fiona Lawrie, a delegate to the ACYD in 2011 and the current manager of the dialogue, recently noted:

The idea with ACYD is that in 20 years' time, ACYD alumni will be running their countries, largest companies and more successful creative organisations. The ties delegates make during the activities are the spark, but it's our hope that the fire burns for a long time.

Indeed, that is a worthy sentiment. From 27 to 30 January I will be in Delhi, Mohali and Bengaluru in India for the Australia-India Youth Dialogue. The AIYD is a newer youth dialogue and has been bringing young Australians and young Indians together since 2012. The dialogue is a great way to connect with young leaders and exchange ideas and perspectives, as well as think creatively about how we can strengthen the Australia-India relationship. The delegates will work together during the dialogue and then present the outcomes of the dialogue to both the Australian and Indian governments.

I certainly look forward to reporting to the parliament on the discussions at these dialogues, and I encourage all MPs to support and engage with these important institutions of regional engagement. Indeed, we all play an important role in this chamber in building these relationships with our neighbours. Michael Wesley, the former director of the Lowy institute, has said on a number of occasions that diplomacy in our region is too important to be left to the diplomats alone.

As members of parliament, we engage on a daily basis with our enormously culturally diverse communities. In my own electorate, two-thirds of my community were either born overseas or their parents were born overseas. That represents an enormous pool of potential cultural understanding and cultural projection into our region. I encourage all MPs to draw on that very valuable pool of human capital in our own communities and to use that to project a more modern, multicultural, national identity of our country into our region. The idea that we can be defined in our region by the Union Jack on our flag, by the Queen as our head of state and by the Queen on our currency is an unfortunate and outdated stereotype and misconception in our region. There is an obligation on all of us to project a more up-to-date vision into the region.