Call to boost business links with Asia

Leading business groups have called on the federal government to urgently develop an "Asia-capable workforce" to take advantage of the rapid growth of the region.

A report prepared by the University of Melbourne's AsiaLink taskforce, which is headed by ANZ chief executive Mike Smith and represents Australia's universities and leading corporations, was this morning launched in Sydney.

The report found Australia could boost its exports by $150 billion to $275 billion over 10 years simply by strengthening small and medium business links with Asia.

The GDPs of Asian economies are projected to more than double to $US67 trillion ($A66 trillion) by 2030 – more than the projected GDPs of the Americas and Europe combined.

Australia is well placed to take advantage of the region's growth, the report found.

But a survey of 380 businesses found those that didn't pursue opportunities in Asia – particularly small and medium enterprises [SMEs], which represent 70 per cent of employment in Australia – were losing out.

SMEs represent just 24 per cent of Australia's export value.

"The results make it clear that the higher the proportion of senior leaders who have cultural training, speak an Asian language or have lived and worked in Asia for more than three months, the more likely business performance will exceed expectations," the report found. "The opposite is also true."

Rio Tinto chief executive Doug Ritchie said language and cultural knowledge were more important in industries that depended on personal interaction, such as the service sector.

"By 2020, Asia is expected to have more middle-class consumers than the rest of the world combined," he said. "The extent to which we benefit from that opportunity or leave it on the table for others to seize will largely depend on our capacity to understand and engage with our neighbours as a member of the Asian region."

The taskforce recommended a business-led approach to strengthen links with Asia, but said schools and universities, and state and federal governments would have to prioritise training in Asian cultures and economies, to equip future workers for dealing with Asian countries.

A survey of businesses conducted by the taskforce found that "a common theme was that the culture of Australian business is rooted in Western, transactional models and that Australian businesses were not adapting to the different cultural norms in Asia".

Fortescue Metals Group non-executive chairman Andrew Forrest said developing trust was key.

"If you've got two people trying to sell you the same car, same price, you'll buy it from a friend as opposed to someone you don't know ... We have to be a friend and they [China] have to be ours."

The report recommended governments drive demand for Asia-focused degrees and TAFE and school subjects and to support businesses – particularly small and medium-sized businesses – to build their capacity to engage with Asian markets.

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