Key to Asian engagement is…Asians

27 May 21

There were two resounding messages that came from the Australian Institute of Management’s Asian Engagement Summit, held in Perth last week.

The first was that no nation or organisation should hitch its wagon to China alone, instead looking for diversity across the multiple Asian markets on Australia’s doorstep.

The second highlights an ongoing colonialist mentality among some Western business cultures – to engage with Asia, you need Asian representatives among your workforce mix.

That was the advice from Perth USAsia Centre CEO Professor Gordon Flake among others. Prof. Flake advised that to engage better across the Asian region, Australia needed to align itself with multiple new trading partners and open its borders to more immigration from our near neighbours.

“We haven’t embraced talent as well as we could have,” Prof. Flake said. “And we need to get more people here to do that.

“There’s also been an assumption that we need to have a China strategy, which in some ways has now turned into a fear of saying something wrong, but the mantra from national down to individual level is diversify, diversify, diversify.”

Deputy Premier and Minister for Health, Medical Research, State Development, Jobs and Trade, and Science the Honourable Roger Cook MLA, who absorbed the Asian engagement portfolio into his broader Jobs and Trade responsibilities at the last election, told the summit that eight out of Western Australia’s largest trading partners were Asian nations but we needed to do more to expand WA’s footprint across the region.

“The Asian region will be home to 66 per cent of the global middle class by 2030 and we need to be Asia ready,” Minister Cook said.

“There are big opportunities in India and we haven’t done particularly well there to date so more effort needs to be applied.

“We also need to look at enhancing relationships and trade opportunities with Indonesia – it’s right there – as well as emerging markets like Vietnam.”

Fortescue Metals Group Manager, Industry and Market Analysis Zayaan Khan said a key to developing better trade relations was to understand the needs and demands of each different market and to get away from the tendency to group Asia into one basket.

Keynote speaker, author and founder of thinktank FutureMap Dr Parag Khanna, addressing the summit by video link from Singapore, said there was a tendency to overstate the risks of working with emerging economies but Australia’s unique position as a “three ocean power” meant there was much more that could be done to harness opportunities given the relatively short and direct shipping routes to multiple Asian ports.

“Western Australia geographically is in a special position for Asian growth opportunities,” Dr Khanna said.

“WA is a part of Asia in an economic sense and while everyone has been paying close attention to Australia’s response to trade tensions with China, there’s already a considerable degree of trust and respect between Australia and other democratic nations in Asia, so that is where the major growth opportunities lie.”

Dr Khanna pointed to green hydrogen, lithium and other battery minerals, desalination technology and food security as areas with considerable upside opportunity for WA. But service industries also offered major export growth potential.

He added that the COVID pandemic, far from limiting opportunities, was in fact a driver for regional trade growth.

“In times of crisis, we look to our neighbours,” he said. “While globalisation is far from dead, regionalism is increasing.”

Delegate Mark Aronson, from Perth-based maarch Architects, said one of the key takeaways from the summit was that WA had a narrow window in which to embrace growth opportunities.

“There are some significant opportunities to engage with emerging Asian nations now and we need to do more than just talk about them,” Mark said.

“WA has a lot more to offer than iron ore and we have to capitalise sooner rather than later on developing direct, two-way engagement with multiple Asian markets to ensure we have a first-mover advantage.”