Australia has lessons to learn in how to engage with the region.
LAST week, the University of New South Wales announced it would not take new students for its Indonesian language course next year. The reason? Lack of student interest, and question marks over the future there was just one Indonesian teacher, nearing retirement. It had all become too hard.
Controversy erupted and now the university has put aside the axe. But this near-death experience is part of a wider, surprising paradox. As government, business and media have stepped up their talk about the importance to us of the "Asian century", the study of Asia in the nation's educational institutions has declined.
According to the Asian Studies Association of Australia, long-time observers working in education and research have warned that teaching and learning about Asia have "withered". Yes, there has been growth in those studying Chinese, but most of the increase has come from native speakers, causing one academic to warn that Chinese could come to be seen as a "ghetto" language taken only by those from a Chinese background.
Julia Gillard is in New York this week, talking up Australia's bid for a UN Security Council temporary seat. Next month, she will again be travelling, this time with her focus on Asia. She will make her first visit as PM to India, a country that, compared with China, has been less in the public consciousness. Also next month (almost certainly after the India trip) she will release the government's white paper on Australia in the Asian century, prepared by a panel chaired by ex-Treasury secretary Ken Henry.
We can be sure the paper will have something to say about the language issue. Its central focus is on what Australia should be doing domestically to get maximum benefit from its regional relationships, and Henry has signalled in a round of speeches much of the thinking he brings to the paper.
He stresses the need to develop "Asia-relevant capabilities", which include not just flexibility, resilience and the like, but more specialist skills adapted to the countries of the region. We will need to understand the way our neighbours do business, have the appropriate cultural understanding to operate in various countries, and possess the language skills to negotiate and develop personal relationships.
Developing these capabilities requires "an education system that acknowledges and recognises Asian culture and history from the earliest years, equipping the next generation with the ability to operate more effectively in an Asian-centred world".
Henry also argues that such a world will mean changes in the attitude of business, and towards it. Many businesses that have defined themselves as "Australian" must identify as "regional", for example, making their distinctive expertise part of regional supply chains, partnering with overseas companies, or even moving some of their operations to Asia.
But changes are against the background of Australian public opinion, and that is conflicted, as shown by the 2012 Lowy poll. The community has accepted the benefits of deep regional engagement: 70 per cent said a major reason Australia didn't fall into recession in the global crisis was because of demand for Australian resources from countries such as China. However, 56 per cent thought the government was allowing too much investment from China. And when asked what they thought about the government allowing foreign companies to buy Australian farmland to grow crops or farm livestock, 63 per cent were strongly against, 18 per cent somewhat against, 5 per cent strongly in favour and 13 per cent somewhat in favour.
"Selling off the farm" in the literal sense is electorally highly delicate. When the Nationals' Barnaby Joyce raises his voice against a Chinese-dominated bid for Cubbie Station, or the Greens' Christine Milne worries about China's sovereign wealth fund eyeing investment in Australia's largest dairy farm in Tasmania, they chime with public opinion, but not with the sort of views advanced by Henry, who has warned against "the risk of Australia damaging its ability to attract foreign capital, and limiting its economic potential in the longer term".
The Asian century white paper should be read in tandem with the defence white paper, out next year. How the US-China competition in the Asia region eventually works out will affect everything else. There are plenty of incentives for these countries to have a positive rather than negative competitive relationship but no guarantees and, to state the obvious, the Asian century runs a long time.
A point worth making is that whatever the hue of the government in the next few years, Australia should be playing the diplomacy more smartly in Asia. Both sides have been wanting here.
Kevin Rudd launched his call for an Asia-Pacific community without proper consultation. Australia was always going to co-operate with Barack Obama's military pivot towards this region, but Gillard had the choice of playing up or playing down what is a relatively modest Australian contribution. She did the former, when diplomacy called for the latter.
Tony Abbott is determined to "tow back" asylum seeker boats, regardless of what the Indonesians think. His declaration that he would go to Jakarta as soon as he was elected is crass. It suggests border protection defines the relationship, and it's like the neighbour saying, "I'm coming over Saturday, convenient or not."
The nation's kids should be much better schooled in Asian languages. But there is another sort of Asian "language", and the adults in politics should brush up their skills in that.