Labor vows to ramp up ties with Asia

China, shanghaiLabor is set to announce plans for a major shake-up of Australia’s ties with Asia if it wins the next election, including beefing up language learning in classrooms and boardrooms.

Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen will unveil the opposition’s FutureAsia strategy in a keynote speech in Sydney on Friday.

It aims to build on the Gillard government’s 2012 Asian century white paper which has been gathering dust since the coalition took power.

“We have paid lip-service to the Asian century whilst other countries have forged ahead with policies designed to complement the economic changes under way,” Bowen will tell the Asia Society.

His message strikes at short-termism and a lack of continuity between governments that has plagued policies in this space in the past.

There’s a perception that because Australia sells a lot of raw materials to China, everything is rosy, Bowen contends.

But he’ll point to the undercooked relationship with Indonesia – on track to be the fourth largest economy in the world but not one of our top 10 trading partners.

The growing Asian middle class is hungry for a protein-rich and safe and healthy diet and for services including world-class education for their children, travel and tourism experiences and quality health care, he’ll say.

“This change represents a challenge for Australia and enormous opportunities for tourism, agriculture, education, services and retail,”Bowen will say, while noting competition will be immense.

He will call for a whole-of-government and whole-of-nation approach to smarter engagement with Asia.

Bowen, who is studying Bahasa Indonesia “on the wrong side of 40,” laments that more Australian year 12 students studied the language in 1972 than today.

He’ll announce Labor will restore $1.5 million to the Asian Education Foundation, which promotes the study of Asia in Australian schools.

The Abbott government cut the funding in the 2015 federal budget. The coalition then subsequently granted $800,000 in transition funding.

Labor will also make Asian language learning a priority during talks between federal, state and territory leaders.

A recent Asialink report found 90 per cent of Australia’s top 200 companies are clueless when it comes to doing business in Asia – lacking a sophisticated knowledge of Asian markets along with trusted relationships, language skills and cultural awareness.

The opposition will pledge $3 million for a pilot program to mentor potential board directors with Asian business experience onto boards.

Bowen will also flag a new program that taps into Asia’s diaspora in Australia and vice, versa to build networks and business opportunities.

Other FutureAsia policies include:

* Establishing an Australia-ASEAN studies centre.

* An annual statement to parliament by the treasurer on progress to increase Asian engagement.

* Formalising annual meetings between Australian and Indonesian finance and trade ministers.

Bowen’s speech is quiet on whether Labor would retain the coalition’s New Colombo Plan – a scholarship program that sends Australian university students to study and do internships in the Asia-Pacific region.

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