Unis striving to bridge Asia gap

21 November 2012

US President Barack Obama being greeted by Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi
US President Barack Obama being greeted by Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi on his historic visit to the country. [Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza]

Barack Obama's historic visit to Myanmar, and the strong focus on Southeast Asia in the US's broader pivot to Asia, are timely reminders that Australia needs to cement its place in the region. In the absence of a concerted effort from government and universities, our relationship with Southeast Asia risks being relegated to a sideshow as we rush to position ourselves in relation to China and India.

With more than 600 million people, Southeast Asia's 11 countries are home to almost 10 per cent of the world's population. The region is of the highest strategic importance to Australia in geopolitical terms. And as its economies mature, so does its potential in terms of markets and investment opportunities. Our relationship doesn't end with security and trade. We also have a deep history of people-to-people engagement and a common interest in issues that transcend national borders, such as climate change, infectious disease and human mobility.

Happily, the federal government's white paper on Australia in the Asian Century recognises all these aspects of the relationship and commits the nation to embracing the opportunities and challenges they present. What is less clear is how the government plans to nurture the Southeast Asia expertise required to do just that.

In terms of research and policy engagement, Australia has long been recognised as having a world-class concentration of Southeast Asia experts. Yet while pretty much every high-ranking university in Australia has a China studies centre, very few have an equivalent for Southeast Asia. Monash University's once world-class Centre for Southeast Asia Studies is now but a shadow of its former self. Southeast Asia-related research has also declined dramatically at Griffith University. And while Murdoch University's Asia Research Centre continues to occupy a niche on the political economy of the region, it no longer commands the resources it once had.

As we speak, a number of universities -- among them Monash and Melbourne -- are formulating new university-wide strategies for engagement with Indonesia. But only two universities are bucking the trend where Southeast Asia as a region is concerned. A Southeast Asia Institute was recently established at the ANU. Shortly before this, the University of Sydney brought together its regional expertise under the banner of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre.

The ANU and Sydney have adopted very different models of area studies. The Southeast Asia Institute, based in the College of Asia and the Pacific, rightly plays to the ANU's traditional strengths in politics, languages and cultures, society and economics. The Sydney Southeast Asia Centre is developing a new approach based on harnessing its capacity in a consciously interdisciplinary way. Under this strategy, country experts are working with agricultural scientists, archaeologists, geographers, lawyers, health professionals, veterinarians and social policy analysts to address the burning policy questions of our age. But these universities are very much doing it on their own. The white paper promises to increase the number of students studying in Asia and the region itself, and stronger university networks in the region. It also recognises the "valuable resource" that universities represent when it comes to "promoting foreign policy priorities".

But apart from a reference to "sharing their economic, quantitative, energy, policy and low-carbon expertise", there is no emphasis on the importance of university research, either in informing Australian policy or as a form of outreach to the region.

This omission is puzzling at a time when AusAID, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research are reaching out to academics in unprecedented ways in relation to Southeast Asia.

In the longer term, university-based expertise on Southeast Asia is crucial to the national interest. University researchers don't just train Asia-literate graduates; they contribute much of the evidence base that underpins informed policymaking on the part of government and effective engagement on the part of business, the development sector and communities.

Universities need to put their money where their mouth is on the region as Sydney and the ANU have done. But without co-ordinated support from all levels of government, it is impossible to expect the higher education sector to rebuild a sustainable knowledge base on Southeast Asia.

Associate Professor Michele Ford is director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre based at the University of Sydney. The centre will be formally launched by Foreign Minister Bob Carr on Friday.

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