KEVIN RUDD is back, promising to kick-start an "intelligent" national conversation on ties with Asia.
In his first major speech after six-weeks of relative quiet since challenging the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, for his old job, Mr Rudd last night warned Australia needed to keep a better watch on the neighbourhood.
"As prime minister and as foreign minister, I often argued that the best vision for Australia was for us to become the most China-literate and Asia-literate country in the 21st century - the China century, the Asian century,'' Mr Rudd said. "But are we producing Australians with the linguistic and cultural skills … to substantiate this claim? The truth is that we are not."
Australia, "an outpost of the occidental world'', must do more to understand the minds of Asia, a region that will eventually host five of the world's largest economies, Mr Rudd said.
He warned of flashpoints that could yet spark disputes, including territorial contests over Taiwan and islands in the South China Sea.
The rise of Asia and the ongoing economic malaise in the US and Europe had led a number of international observers to speculate on the direction of global politics in coming decades.
Mr Rudd singled out China for special mention, saying people were taking a long time to realise that for the first time in 500 years a "non-western, non-English speaking, non-democracy" will become the largest economy in the world.
He warned the learning of Asian languages in Australia was in decline, increasing the likelihood of misunderstandings between individuals, corporations and countries.
"Some will ask why is this important. Surely English is now the universal language. Surely the elites of Asia are all studying English. Surely the bulk of these elites are being educated in Western academic institutions," Mr Rudd said.
"At best this reflects only part of the picture and, I would submit, a declining part of the picture.
The truth is, the bulk of the intellectual discourse - political and policy debate as well as economic exchange within Asia - occurs in languages other than English."
Mr Rudd said that while thousands of Asian students study in Australia, only hundreds of Australian students study at universities in Asia.
And he said the estimated 300 million users of the Chinese Twitter, Weibo, showed that Chinese was the dominant language of the internet.
The Gillard government had commissioned a white paper, Australia in the Asian Century, set for release mid year.
Mr Rudd said he would speak at length over the course of the year on links with Asia.
"In doing so, I hope to be able to promote an intelligent national discussion on what we should do to lift our national game," he said.
"Over the years, I have lived and travelled more in Asia than in any other region in the world … for me it has always represented a core part of Australia's long term future.
"I have thought long and hard, written much and perhaps spoken too much, on this central challenge for Australia's future.
''How do we, as a country of barely 23 million, many of us as relatively recently arrived Europeans, carve out our future in this vast region.''
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