Australia starts to catch up with the Asian century | Judith Ireland

While it's a no-brainer that closer ties with Asia are necessary to Australia's success, it's good the government is now on board

When the news alert went around last month for the launch of the Gillard government's new white paper, it sparked more than a bit of grumbling. The prime minister, Julia Gillard, had decided to release her blueprint for Asia on a Sunday. At a foreign policy thinktank in Sydney, Gillard unveiled Australia in the Asian Century, 320 pages described as a "roadmap showing how Australia can be a winner in the Asian century". "It's not enough to rely on luck," she said.

According to the report, Asia is on the rise in a staggering way. Over the past 20 years, China and India have almost tripled their share of the global economy. By 2030, it is predicted that Asia will have 64% of the global middle class and make up more than 40% of middle-class consumption.

Written by a team in the prime minister's own department and headed by respected former Treasury boss Ken Henry, the end result (after a few eyebrow-raising delays) was 25 targets for Australia to achieve by 2025. For example, by 2025, Australia's GDP per person will be in the world top 10 (up from 13th), while Australia's school system will be in the top five (up from about 10th).

There are other objectives about business engagement, innovation and trade links, but the goals that generated the most interest were that all students will learn a "priority" Asian language – Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian or Japanese – and that Asian studies will be a "core part" of the school curriculum.

On paper at least, this was much-needed news. Australians' study of foreign languages is so unimpressive that earlier this year, the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, was able to proudly announce that if elected, he would return high school take-up of foreign languages to 1960s levels. In 2008, less than 6% of Australian students studied Indonesian, Japanese, Korean or Mandarin in the final year of high school.

The focus on education about Asia is also important for Australians who, while enthusiastic travellers (3.5 million people out of a country of 22.6 million visited Asia last year), have a fairly poor knowledge of their neighbours. In his book There Goes the Neighbourhood, Professor Michael Wesley argued that Australian citizens were dangerously insular. For example, a 2010 survey of Australians found that the attribute they most strongly associate with Thailand was "holidays and beaches" (54%). Those surveyed were also most interested in knowing more about "Thai cooking" (72%) than any other aspect of Thai life or culture.

Despite getting people out of bed on a Sunday, the thrust of the white paper received a broadly positive reception. Twenty years ago, talking about Asia (and close engagement with it) as the key to Australia's success might have raised a few hackles, given the country's decidedly Anglocentric tradition. Today, it is simply accepted as a no-brainer. Even the Abbott-led coalition (which has a habit of disagreeing with Gillard) was comfortable with the broad argument.

They were, however, unhappy with the lack of detail. As coalition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop said: "[The paper] is long on rhetoric and short on substance, [there's] no detailed strategic plan of how to achieve the goals." Indeed, while teachers and academics welcomed the education push, they wondered where the money would come from to pay for all the extra teachers and training required.

There have also been business voices protesting that they were already "engaging like you wouldn't believe" with Asia. This week, Keith De Lacy from the Australian Institute of Company Directors argued it was "a bit patronising that they've got to put out an Asian white paper as though it's just being discovered".

To be fair, the paper devotes a whole chapter to Australia's existing interactions with Asia and doesn't try to assert that the region is some sort of revelation. It simply isn't true anyway. Since Ben Chifley in the 1940s, Australian prime ministers have increasingly thought about Asia. In a reverse deja vu moment, the Hawke government-commissioned Garnaut report recommended closer links with Asia in 1989. Gillard's immediate predecessor, Kevin Rudd, even speaks fluent Mandarin.

Quite apart from the long-established trade, travel, diplomatic, security and economic links, almost one in 10 Australians today identify as having Asian ancestry. But while Asia is certainly no new thing to Australia, the paper represents a stronger evolution towards Asia. It also puts the onus on Australians, beyond the government level, to make their own shift.

However, as some of the details and the dollars are worked out, the full extent of the paper's ambitions will also take time to catch on in the national psyche. Less than two weeks after Australia in the Asian Century went live, Australia stopped, transfixed for two days as the US voted and the results were counted and analysed. In the same week, China's momentous leadership change barely rated a mention. It may be the Asian century but not everyone realises it just yet.

• This article was commissioned after a suggestion by ManWhoFellToEarth © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds