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Australia’s big bet on Asia

It was the talk of teaching Hindi to schoolchildren down under that grabbed all the headlines in India but Canberra’s White Paper Australia in the Asian Centurymerits wider attention because governments today rarely state far-reaching plans of any kind, let alone those involving an epochal reorientation of political sensibility. Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who commissioned the paper and wrote the foreword, is clear that this century “will bring Asia’s rise;” she adds that its “unstoppable transformation” into the world’s economic powerhouse is gathering pace, and that economic weight means strategic weight. The paper goes further, saying that Asia will soon be the world’s largest producer and consumer of goods and services, and the Australian plan is to take the opportunities arising. All of Australian society is to be involved. For example, it is expected that larger businesses will recruit more staff who have worked in Asia and will routinely include “cultural competency training” for all. Secondly, Australia expects to contribute from its own considerable strengths. Trade unions will be part of the process. So will educational institutions and community groups; the former are to offer Asian languages as part of the normal curriculum. The document also states a commitment to maintaining and improving the country’s social systems, including financial ones, in an already diverse society.

The new relationships are intended to complement and not replace Canberra’s long-standing strategic collaboration with the United States. That collaboration will likely deepen with Washington all set to step up its presence in Asia. Cynics say the White Paper may remain declaratory policy, never to be implemented. Nevertheless, Ms Gillard’s recognition of Australia’s shared future with Asia and Asians tells a remarkable story of the mental distance the country has travelled from its ‘White Australia Policy’ days. For India, the Australian discovery of Asia couldn’t have come at a better time. There is a small but significant Indian diaspora in Australia and trade and investment are on the upswing as Indian companies eye Australian coal. The ‘student crisis’ is over and direct flights from Delhi to Melbourne are due to start soon. India and Australia have a common interest in inclusive regional architecture and issues like the security of shipping in the wider Indo-Pacific maritime region. Whether Aussie uranium is eventually exported to India is not clear but given the decline in global demand and prices for the nuclear fuel, this can hardly be considered a major obstacle in the bilateral relationship.

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