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Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 01:01 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 01:01 | SYDNEY

A couple more footnotes on 'Asia'

This morning I pointed to two sources that contribute to the discussion we've staged about the definition of Asia and Australia's place within it. As a third source, reader Alex points me to this article on today's Fairfax press arguing that, in regard to engaging with Asia, 'we are both enriched and entrapped by our Anglo-Celtic culture.'

I also wanted to respond briefly to the argument made by Tim Soutphommasane (summarised today by Nick Bryant), who writes:

Without noticing it, we've fallen into the habit of making a monetary fetish out of our relationships with Asia, seeing its value only in terms of dollar signs. Thus, even when pointed criticisms are made of our failure to develop Asian literacy, critics frequently lapse into arguments about maximising the ''returns'' from our ''investment'' in Asia.

It's little wonder we struggle to get students in schools and universities to take up Asian languages. We can't seriously expect to build cultural literacy so long as we treat it as a mere instrument of economic self-interest. That's not the way to motivate children and teachers to take on the hard slog of learning Mandarin or Indonesian, and to stick at it.

There are a few things about this that feel wrong, starting with the claim that we've 'fallen into the habit' of seeing Asia in purely monetary terms. Soutphommasane presents no evidence for this claim, and I would argue that economics has been a consistently strong theme in Australia's relationship with Asia, along with security. Neither theme is new, and neither has ever dominated to the exclusion of the other.

Second, there are many reasons why Asian literacy is doing badly in Australia, but to say that it's because education authorities place too much emphasis on the economic benefits of learning an Asian language is novel. Perhaps a more likely reason students aren't taking up an Asian language is that the perceived career benefits are largely illusory (counter-argument here).

Third, Soutphomassane's call to look beyond dollar signs in our relationship with Asia neglects the fact that those economic ties are severely underdone. We trade less with Indonesia than we do with with New Zealand, which has 2% of Indonesia's population and one-fifth of its GDP. And although Australia trades a lot within the region, we do very little investing.

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