The bother of getting "Asia-literate"

Australia is in trouble with Indonesia for stupidly spying on its president. Can New Zealand help?

Two events last week and one this week offer pointers.

Event one last week: Steven Joyce’s light-bulb flash that exporters wanting to sell well in China must know the language and understand the way of life.

Event two: a “seminar” on getting “Asia literate” by the august postgraduate Australia-New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) turned into a primer, judging by the basic level of ots content. That is, ANZSOG assumed a low-to-non-existent “Asia-literacy” in both countries — in what many Asians and others bill as the “Asian century”.

But isn’t our interest in Asia essentially “commercial”, as United States-centric John Key once said of China? Can’t we just assume China and other “emerging” economies will want and buy more of our protein as they get richer? While having an understanding of how business is done there is important, is not a full “Asia-literacy” overdoing it?

That is the message you would get from the resourcing of Asian studies in schools and universities by Key’s government and, before it, Euro-centric Helen Clark’s government.

Japan, then Korea, then China and other east Asian countries figured that to get on in a world run according to ideas generated in Europe and North America — open, liberal societies, the rule of law and rules-based market-capitalism and trade, plus science and the innovation that comes from science — they had to get a deep knowledge of those ideas and societies. They imported teachers and sent emissaries.

Now the North Atlantic’s half-millennium hegemony of ideas is ending. Those ideas will not fade or be overridden (at least not quickly) and will remain influential in global governance. But they are being challenged. In this decade that challenge is much stronger than in the 2000s. Expect the 2020s challenge to be stronger again.

That is clear in climate change negotiations, near-stalled at last week’s Warsaw summit on demands by “emerging” (including Asian) countries and developed countries’ resistance. And, while the World Trade Organisation is reported to have recently made progress on agriculture, border processes and development-related issues, which will benefit rising countries (and New Zealand), talks to include new items in a tariff agreement on information technology products stalled when China wouldn’t cut its exceptions list.

To respond to such positioning, the North Atlantic’s Australasian offshoot needs to understand how east Asians actually think and thus how they assume a society and its politics and economy should be organised.

That is much more than learning language basics and culturally-correct politenesses.

It suggests importing teachers, incentivising Asian studies and courses and embedding people in Asian universities and companies. For now that is left largely to individual choice.

There will be more Asian study because rising numbers of Asians live here and they connect to their home cultures. But for non-Asians there is no urgency under the Key-Joyce regime, as under Clark’s.

So to this week’s event, the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum, set up in May 2004 as a dialogue of business and other non-government leaders plus a handful of politicians and officials, aimed at deepening the relationship and removing obstacles to free movement and business — that is, enhancing the Closer Economic Relations (CER) agreement.

The original format, a hollow square and over two days, encouraged engagement. This week’s is one day, with many talking-heads-on-a-platform — deputy prime ministers, trade, finance, foreign, communications and commerce ministers and chief executives. The Business Council of Australia, active at the 2012 forum, will not be this time: it wants a roundtable of big-hitters.

A focus is on better organising the single economic market, including a routine bid for mutual recognition of company imputation tax credits, which Australia routinely rejects. That rejection is scarcely in the CER spirit. Neither is the decision by at least two Australian retailers to source from local suppliers and not cheaper New Zealand ones.

There are also sessions on external trade, brand protection, regional capital flows and getting “Asia-fit”, reflecting that CER was always intended to be outward-looking as well as trans-Tasman.

If last year’s forum is a guide, that will not lead to a programme to jointly embed the two countries in Asia, and ASEAN in particular, in an “Asia-literate” way, for which the two countries could draw on complementary strengths: Australia bigger, resource-rich but tightly United States-allied, New Zealand tiny but more acceptable as a non-threatening friend — including in Indonesia.

But, then, a trumpeted 30-year-birthday review of CER at prime ministerial level has yet to produce more than peanuts. Deep “Asia-literacy” is not (yet?) a priority. That’s for the pointy-heads’ primers posing as seminars.