The catchphrase "the Asian Century" was put forward by the Australian Government in a White Paper last year in which it promoted economic growth, sustainability and social prosperity.
The same sentiment applied to the transtasman talks this month between Prime Minister John Key and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard who agreed the Asian Century holds great opportunities for New Zealand and Australia.
The Asia region consists of 48 countries that account for a quarter of the world's nations and 60 per cent of its population; its economic power and growth are by world standards huge and this trend will assuredly continue in the future. There are tremendous benefits to be gained by countries that trade and interact with this culturally diverse and economically dynamic region.
Although Australia's initiatives and commitment were made clear in its white paper, New Zealand's commitment does not appear to be so promising. The Australians, led by Gillard, undertook several initiatives including increasing Asian literacy in schools to increase the opportunity for students to acquire Asian language skills and cultural awareness.
Australian academics would like to see more studies and programmes about Asia; the awareness and commitment by government heads, educators, and business leaders for engagement in the Asian Century is encouraging.
The question is, are New Zealanders ready and equipped to participate in the Asian Century opportunity and reap the benefits of engaging with this rapidly growing economic powerhouse?
The Asia region provides a gateway for Kiwis to share in the prosperity opportunities the developing region presents to countries that actively engage with it. However, to realise the advantages from such an engagement, there needs to be a strong commitment by the Government.
Although there may be some unease that "an Asian engagement" may have an adverse effect on Kiwi culture and values, connecting with the region's countries is a necessary part of "being a good neighbour". With an increased knowledge of Asian people and their ways, New Zealanders have the option to choose new practices with which they feel comfortable and in harmony with their way of life. In order to stem the flow of the tens of thousands of Kiwis who move to Australia annually seeking better lifestyle opportunities, the Government could give New Zealand youth the chance to tap into the Asian economic bloc by committing to a greater emphasis in its education programme of the study of Asian languages and cultures.
In 2007 the Government led by Helen Clark pre-empted the Australian initiative with "Our future with Asia", a programme built on the 2003 "Seriously Asia" project that sought to revitalise the focus on Asia. The initiative cited significant economic benefits and also urged Kiwis to be more Asian literate.
On the subject of English speakers learning an Asian language, former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer commented that in the time it would take for Australians to generally master one, Asians would be fluent in English. Be that as it may, either result is not going to happen in the short term, but in the interim an increase in the appreciation of the cultures of 4.3 billion Asians by native English speakers can only have positive effects.
A basic knowledge of Asian cultures paves the way for the more challenging skill of language acquisition that requires patience, practice and commitment.
A 2007 survey of Asian businesses reported that New Zealand business people were well regarded and seen as trustworthy by Asian counterparts, but their Asia-related skills in language and culture were perceived to be low.
It is in the higher education sector that a concerted effort needs to be made to give New Zealand young people the opportunity through Asian studies to participate in what will become the world's most dynamic and diverse region. The chance for students to gain abilities that will serve them well in the future is quite within New Zealand's resources. Universities are an ideal environment to nurture a youthful, inquisitive, and acquisitive mind and they have a responsibility to fully carry out their mandates.
There are concerns about the New Zealand economy with 6.9 per cent unemployment and 14.2 per cent of youth aged between 15-24 years not engaged in study, work or training. With more than 50,000 people last year seeking opportunities in Australia a stronger engagement in Asia might mitigate the crisis.
It may be New Zealand's political leadership needs to give a spur to universities to instigate courses that can effect some changes to a worrying social pattern.
Midori Kagawa-Fox is a senior lecturer at the University of Waikato who recently joined the Japanese programme. She was previously teaching at the Centre for Asian Studies at the University of Adelaide, which she is still affiliated with as a visiting research fellow.