Australia’s Asian Century – Canada’s too?

I am British by birth and Canadian by choice. While I have a healthy respect for the Commonwealth, I have never aspired to go beyond my two nationalities – until this week. Now I want to be an Australian.
This admiration for Oz is precipitated by a new White Paper presented by the Australian government last week, Australia in the Asian Century.
The nearly 300-page paper is ambitious, strategic, well-written and comprehensive. One Australian commentator called it ‘lofty and inspirational’. That is what is at the root of my Australia-envy. It has been a long time since I have been inspired by a white paper. But then it is also a long time since I have seen a white paper in Canada. The Parliament of Canada website shows that the two most recent white papers were produced in 2010: one on cyber security and the other on the Arctic. There were two produced in 2009, none in 2008 and one in 2007.
One inspiring thing about Australia in the Asian Century is that it connects the challenges Australia faces in penetrating Asian markets with domestic objectives, including building up the five pillars of productivity: skills and education, innovation, infrastructure, tax reform and regulatory reform. It also underscores the need for Australia to learn from, not just sell into, Asia, now a ‘world centre of innovation and technological development’ (p.43).
The daunting thing is that Canada has to compete with Australia in developing relationships in Asia. We are clearly starting behind the pack. The Australian White Paper opens with the statement that:
“Our nation … has the strength that comes from a long history of engagement with countries in Asia. Australia’s relationships in our region are strong and robust, including with Asian nations like China, Japan, India, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).” (p.1)
Contrast this with the opening paragraphs written by Dominic Barton, Global Managing Director of McKinsey in Canada 2020’s 2011 anthology The Canada We Want in 2020.
“Asia….feels geographically and culturally distant, despite the fact that Canada is a Pacific nation. Links are sparse and Canadian businesses lag their rivals from other OECD countries in terms of Asian penetration”(p.35)
It is true that the Harper Government has “pivoted” towards Asia over the past two years. In addressing the recent Canadian Council of Chief Executives conference on Canada in the Pacific Century, Foreign Minister Baird noted that “We have made 77 cabinet-level or Prime Ministerial visits to the Asia-Pacific in the past three years alone”: tomorrow the PM will add to that total when he leads Ministers Fast, Ritz and Oliver to India.
Minister Baird went on to emphasize the steps the government has taken in the trade area (while acknowledging that there has yet to be a trade agreement signed with an Asian nation), its goals in regional security and governance and the important increase in Canada’s diplomatic presence in Asia. Lastly, Minister Baird noted the importance of promoting Canadian values in the region, citing Canadian support to Burma.
But this Australian manifesto underlines how far we have to go and how widely we need to participate in the effort. Skepticism and fear of Asia, and China in particular, is rife in Canadian society, government and business, as evidenced by the debate over the CNOOC/Nexen deal and the China-Canada FIPA. The government position on both these issues has done nothing to reassure Canadians that their interests will be served by deepening relationships with the globe’s most – perhaps only – economically vibrant region.
What the Australian White Paper does so well is to project a rallying cry to the whole of Australian society. What is required is concrete measures such as the proposal that one-third of board members of Australia’s top 200 publicly listed companies and Commonwealth bodies (including companies, authorities, agencies and commissions) will have deep experience in and knowledge of Asia, as will one-third of the senior leadership of the Australian public service.
Concrete measures yield concrete rewards. If Australia meets it objectives in Asia, it is projected that per capita real annual income will rise by A$3,000 per annum by 2025 (up from the ‘business as usual’ projection for 2025 of A$70,000 to A$73,000: the 2012 figure is A$62,000). This will put Australian in the top 10 globally for per capita income (it is already ahead of Canada, according to World Bank figures).
Rana Sarkar from the Canada-India Business Council provided much-needed inspiration when he wrote in his contribution to The Canada We Want in 2020 of our need to double down on existing policy, but also to be opportunistic, creative, bold and strategic in our approach to Asia.
This Australian White Paper puts flesh and clear targets on the strategies that Sarkar referenced. It talks of the need for government to lead a broad coalition of “business, unions, community groups and educational and cultural institutions” to improve people-to-people links to unlock large economic and social gains (p. 3) and while it pinpoints key growth opportunities for Australia (including mining, tourism, agriculture, education, environmentally sustainable development), it also highlights the contribution of culture and the arts.
“The arts, culture and creativity can broaden and strengthen Australia’s relationships in Asia, both formally and informally. Australia’s cultural strengths—as home to the world’s oldest living culture, and as a country that welcomes diversity—underpin values of respect, understanding and inclusion that help to connect people, business, institutions and governments.“ (p.8)
Australian commentators have criticized the document on two main grounds: the first is that it is not all new. A number of the targets and programs it apparently ‘announces’ are already in existence (cited here are the 12,000 Australia educational Awards (over 5 years) for study in Asia or for Asians to study in Australia). The second is that there are not enough specifics or resource commitments behind the lofty policies.
From a Canadian perspective we have to hope that that is the case. Australia starts ahead of us in Asia. It has a similarly stable economy to ours. But it also has greater ambition, it seems, and a stronger track record in solving the type of problems that Asian countries face (for example, it already has experience with carbon pricing and can point to successes in water and soil management, while Canada has no binding national laws on drinking water quality, river basin management or agricultural waste: all pressing problems in Asia).
If we are to ‘leapfrog’ others in our quest to get ahead in Asia we clearly have to jump very high: it would help if our competitors could crouch, but that does not appear to be happening.