I have been participating in a program called the AsiaLink Leaders Program for the past 8 months and never has a course/program shifted my thinking and challenged me so. The objective of the program is to have deeper Australia-Asia engagement. We have been learning high-level cultural intelligence skills to manage the complexity of Australia-Asia relations. Last week, the group convened for a five-day retreat in Canberra. The topic was “Developing an Australian ‘Asia Plan’” and a big part of this plan is of course China. At the retreat, we had the opportunity to meet with various Asian Ambassadors, top government officials and current politicians to discuss Australia’s Asian Plan.
We Really Have Been “The Lucky Country”:
We are living in a time of uncertainty. However, Australia has escaped a true recession in the aftermath of the GFC. We are lucky. And we should be thanking China for this luck. Our trading with China was one of the key lifesavers for us. Other parts of the world haven’t been so lucky: the US’ unemployment rate is 9.1%, the EU is nearly at breaking point. Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank recently warned “the world is in a danger zone”. Can Australia simply rest on its laurels (i.e., resources) and hope for the best? No, we need to be thinking ahead and being proactive.
We need to get outside of our comfort zone to secure our future. The 21st Century will be the Asian Century – if we want to grow with Asia, we need to do some work. I believe Australia can uniquely position itself as an innovative country that provides knowhow to the Asian region. We are in a perfect position – we know and understand US/European culture and have strong alliances here. We are part of Asia geographically and increasingly more so culturally, with over 600,000 people here of Asian descent and growing. We have the opportunity to provide unique services to the region. Let’s look at China as an example.
China – the Threat and the Opportunity:
It is the first time in history that Australia’s major trading partner (China) is NOT our strategic partner (USA). We like the economic benefit of having China as our major trading partner, yet feel threatened by them as outlined in the Department of Defence’s white paper, “Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030” (2009). China is very sensitive to this perception of it being a threat. The Chinese Ambassador to Australia, H.E. Mr. Chen Yuming spoke to our group about the problems associated with its tremendous growth over the last few years. There are still 180 million people living below the poverty line. They are trying to shift from being a manufacturing nation to a consumption nation. To put it in perspective, if we compare world ranking GDP per capita – Australia is 7th, US is 10th and China is 91st (Source: International Monetary Fund 2010). They still have a long way to go to create better lives for their people. This is China’s challenge. China is keen for peaceful development. Quite frankly, they have enough on their plate trying to deal with domestic issues. But it is a challenge for Australia. China’s closed political process, South China Sea territorial claims and its opaque legal system absolutely present challenges for us as Australians. But perhaps we can try to find some common ground.
Australian Business in China:
There is a HUGE opportunity for Australian businesses in China. I’m not simply talking about the obvious mining and energy. Food security is a major issue for the future; Australia is in a position to assist with this. There are abundant opportunities for service businesses in China, services that will help them with their exponential growth of urban cities – design services, architecture and education to name a few. For example, Chengdu is a city in Southwest China where over 10 million people reside. It is one of the fastest growing “2nd Tier” cities in China. There are many opportunities here and other 2nd and 3rd tier cities. It comes down to creating customers by helping them solve a problem. In my own business, I looked to China to outsource my manufacturing. This move, whilst scary for me at the time (late 1990s) allowed my business to be more competitive and sustainable. If you have a business, I encourage you to consider the opportunities in China (and Asia generally for that matter). There are more than the obvious manufacturing opportunities. Perhaps a good starting point is to go along to an Australia China Business Council event or talk to AusTrade about your plans. Perhaps invite a new Director on your board who has some experience working in China or Asia. We are entering a new era – unfamiliar territory. I believe we must embrace the change and jump into the deep end. Julie Bishop, Deputy Opposition Leader, told our group that the Coalition would support compulsory second language in our schools, more student exchange programs (not just Asian students coming to Australia, but also more Aussie students spending time in Asia). This is a good start. We need to be ready for this brave new world that is a result of globalisation and the huge shift of power to the East. And the better equipped we are, the more secure our businesses and the future as a nation will be.