As a hard-won free trade agreement with Indonesia comes into effect this week, and concerns grow about Australia’s economic reliance on China, experts warn Australia’s Asia literacy is likely to suffer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Opposition MPs call for the Federal Government to rescue an at-risk Indonesian study program
- Some say the collapse of the program would mean an effective end to the Coalition’s New Colombo Plan
- The National Library’s removal of key Asian countries from its collecting strategy has been widely criticised
A landmark free trade agreement with Indonesia, which came into force on Sunday, has been touted by the Federal Government as an opportunity to bounce back from Australia’s first recession in 29 years.
It has been argued the deal offers an opportunity to reduce reliance on China, which has introduced punitive measures against Australian exporters and warned its students against studying in Australia in recent months as the bilateral relationship deteriorates.
Meanwhile, a group of leading economists from the Australian National University (ANU) along with the Australian Department of Industry secretary Heather Smith recently called for Australia to join Asian neighbours in leading the economic recovery from the pandemic.
But experts are warning reduced funding to institutions and cuts to programs, accelerated by the coronavirus and its economic fallout, could threaten Australia’s ability to effectively engage and do business with the region.
‘Huge potential for the relationship to grow’
The Government says the deal will reduce tariffs on nearly all import goods and relax foreign ownership laws in Indonesia, creating opportunities for Australian universities to enter the Indonesian market, and include an increase in work visas for Indonesians coming to Australia.
“In these tough times, on the back of the droughts, bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic, IA-CEPA’s entry into force is great news for country Australia,” Minister Assisting the Minister for Trade and Investment Andrew Gee said.
At a time of increased protectionism and global economic downturn, the Federal Government has touted the agreement as an opportunity for struggling Australian businesses across a range of sectors from agriculture to education.
Federal Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said IA-CEPA was “crucial to reducing job losses arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and a critical part of our ultimate economic recovery”.
Beijing has increasingly used trade as political leverage at the expense of Australian exporters, particularly in light of Australia’s push for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some economists have argued that this necessitates a diversification of Australia’s trade relationships. China currently accounts for more than a quarter of Australia’s trade with the world.
“Indonesia is our 13th largest export market and there is huge potential for the relationship to grow,” Mr Gee said.
‘A devastating loss’: Indonesia study program at risk
Senior Labor figures have meanwhile called on the Government to inject emergency funds into the Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies (ACICIS) — an exchange program responsible for sending thousands of Australian students to Indonesia since it was founded in 1995.
Shadow Minister for Trade Madeleine King yesterday wrote to Foreign Minister Marise Payne to “reiterate” her concerns that ACICIS was facing closure due to COVID-19 and to request the Government urgently provide financial assistance.
“It is right that Australia aspires towards a stronger economic relationship with Indonesia,” Ms King told the ABC, warning this “will not happen overnight”.
“Its potential will never be fulfilled unless Australians put more effort into better understanding Indonesia, its people, language and culture,” she said.
“Now we have the embarrassing spectacle of the Government ignoring requests to provide emergency funding to ACICIS, which has played a key role for 25 years in forging closer relations between our two nations.”
Ms King and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong last week wrote to the Government demanding a financial lifeline for the program.
ACICIS director Liam Prince told the ABC: “Up until COVID we’d never had it so good in terms of ACICIS’s mission of sending Australians to Indonesia.”
The New Colombo Plan — a signature policy of former foreign minister Julie Bishop aimed at funding Australian students’ study in Asia — had allowed ACICIS to increase the number of students it sent to Indonesia from about 100 a year in 2014 to more than 500, he said.
Indonesia has been the most popular destination for Australian students under the New Colombo Plan.
Due to cancelled programs because of travel restrictions imposed because of COVID-19, however, ACICIS has lost $600,000 to date.
And total losses caused by the pandemic could be up to $2 million, “which would just wipe us out”, Mr Prince said.
Elena Williams, former country director of ACICIS and now a PhD candidate at the ANU, said the IA-CEPA had taken a lot of negotiation from both sides.
“These relationships don’t happen in a vacuum,” she said.
“It would be a devastating loss if ACICIS were to fold.”
Ross Tapsell, a lecturer and expert on Indonesia at ANU, was also concerned about the future of the New Colombo Plan.
ACICIS recently launched a DIY fundraising campaign to raise funds from alumni and the public, which to date has attracted $40,000 in donations — but that is not nearly enough.
The organisation is also in the process of sacking 60 per cent of its employees in Australia and Indonesia.
“At a time when our Government is looking to enhance connections with Indonesia via a new trade deal, DFAT is being rigid and unhelpful to an organisation that helps sustain the Australia-Indonesia relationship,” Dr Tapsell said, calling upon Ms Payne to step in.
DFAT had not responded to the ABC’s request for comment by time of publication.
‘More than just a degree’
Graham Hills is originally from Perth but moved to Singapore in 2007, having been inspired by his time studying abroad with ACICIS.
He has worked for Yahoo South-East Asia and is now the Head of Asia for Australian travel company Luxury Escapes.
Mr Hills told the ABC that ACICIS had been an invaluable “24/7” learning experience for language and cross-cultural skills, unmatched by classroom learning at the University of Western Australia.
“Many graduates of the program move into roles that foster better relationships between Indonesia and Australia be it at the government level or through business,” Mr Hills said.
“It helps produce graduates that have more than just a degree.”
Emily Rowe joined an ACICIS program in 1998 and now works for Harm Reduction International, an NGO that works on reducing the negative public health and social impacts of drug use and policy.
“While studying [in the city of Yogyakarta] I also volunteered at a sexual and reproductive health centre which exposed me first hand to public health responses in low resource settings,” she told the ABC.
Dr Rowe has since led the organisation’s public health study tours, which provide exposure for Australian students to the public health challenges in Indonesia.
“ACICIS is such an important part of Indonesia-Australia relationship,” she said.
Mr Prince, director of ACICIS, added it was also “an intergenerational project”.
Loss of expertise on key trading partners Korea and Japan
Japan is Australia’s second largest trading partner, while South Korea is its fourth largest.
In contrast to China’s authoritarian system, both countries are democracies with similar geopolitical interests.
Nevertheless, the National Library of Australia has removed Japan and South Korea, along with Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, as priority countries in its Asian collection due to financial constraints.
The National Library’s world-class Asia collections date back to the 1950s, which its website attributes to the “farsighted policies” of then-national librarian Harold White.
Now, only China, Indonesia and Timor Leste are listed as priority countries from Asia in its Collecting Strategy for 2020-2024.
A submission to the library’s director-general from the Asian Studies Association of Australia, signed by dozens of the country’s leading scholars of Asia, insisted that there be no reduction in the collection of materials from other Asian countries.
“While the strategic and cultural importance of China is clear, the sole emphasis on China in the north-east Asian region is not: it is not possible to truly understand China’s role in regional matters without access to materials from Korea, Japan and South-East Asia.”
“This is a collection built up over a period of 70 years,” James Spiegelman, former chief justice of NSW and chair of the ABC, recently wrote.
Jay Song, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, recently told the ABC the university had decided not to proceed with establishing a Korean Studies major by 2022 due to financial hardship caused by COVID-19.
This is despite the fact that Korean language learning attracted 500 students in its first year as a subject in 2019, compared with some 350 for Chinese, she said.
Overall decline in Asian studies
Australia is home to the third-largest number of Chinese Government-funded Confucius Institutes after the US and UK, which are touted as “a bridge reinforcing friendship and cooperation between China and the rest of the world”.
Some 13 universities host them, while the NSW Department of Education runs the so-called Confucius Classrooms program in schools.
Meanwhile, Indonesian language studies have languished, with a number of departments closing altogether at Australian universities over the past decade.
“The sad truth is that our engagement with Indonesia has been languishing for years,” Shadow Trade Minister Madeleine King said.
“At Australian high schools and universities, there has been a dramatic collapse in the number of students learning the Indonesian language.”
Meanwhile, experts warn the Federal Government’s plan to overhaul tertiary education, which would double the cost of humanities degrees, could further impoverish the Asia literacy of the Australian workforce.
Languages are a priority under the plan, however the Asian Studies Association has said learning a language without social, historical and political context would: “undermine the goal — repeatedly endorsed by successive Federal Governments — of training Asia-literate graduates.”
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