Australia is not alone in thinking seriously about the implications of the Asian century. Discussions at the Lowy Institute's PNG New Voices conference last week debated Papua New Guinea's international choices and place in the Asian century.
The participants at our conference had clearly not only grasped the historical significance of the rise of Asia and in particular China, they were also seized of the trade and investment opportunities on offer and the development lessons to be learned from the experience of a number of Asian countries. They were keen to learn more from an increasingly complex web of relationships with Asian partners.
This was interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, controversy over investment from countries such as China and Malaysia, which in the past has been manifested through violence, appears to have morphed into acceptance and eagerness to do business with Asia – at least amongst a younger generation of Papua New Guineans.
Secondly, Australia is still PNG's pre-eminent trade and investment partner even if the bilateral relationship is more often seen as dominated by aid. According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, Australia has a 27.9% share of PNG's exports to the world, while Australian products have a 42.1% share of PNG's import market. According to Chinese government sources, China-PNG bilateral trade was US$1.265 billion in 2011, an almost ten-fold increase since 2001. China is PNG's second largest trading partner but Australia-PNG bilateral trade is still way ahead, at A$5.98 billion in 2011.
Yet Chinese (and increasingly other Asian) economic interactions, as well as the development experience of Asian nations, appear to occupy a higher profile than Australian trade and investment or Australian models of development in the consciousness of young Papua New Guineans.
This thinking may just reflect the educated mindset of the small sample of participants at our conference. But if we consider that this group could very well be the future leaders of the PNG, the influence Australia is accustomed to exerting in Papua New Guinea may not be as durable as it seems.
The Australian Government's White Paper did not make mention of Papua New Guinea or other Pacific Islands. The economic status and tiny populations of Pacific Islands (PNG aside) tends to exclude them from Australian thinking about the rise of Asia. PNG's economy is forecast to grow at a respectable 7.7% in 2012, comparable to growth rates in the emerging economies of Asia. Its population of 6.7 million is also growing fast. Like Australia, PNG is positioning itself to build on Asian interest in its resources.
The White Paper was written for an Australian audience but Australia is also well placed to exchange ideas with an emerging and engaged audience in Papua New Guinea on the challenges of forging a prosperous future in the Asian century.
Photo by Flickr user 350.org.