The recent decision to invest in a substantial multimillion dollar award to the China Studies Centre at the Australian National University (ANU) as well as the broader public discussion over the significance of Asian language teaching highlight critical issues about the nature and direction of public investment in research on Australia’s region.
The most important issue is the lack of a coherent strategy to guide work on the profound social and political transformation that is occurring in the region and Australia’s role in the new Asian Century. This debate is to be welcomed but it has to be based on a clearly articulated rationale for public investment in research. The implicit rationale of many proponents of increased research investment on the region is underpinned by an amorphous notion of Asia literacy linked to an engagement with, and an understanding of, the distinctive cultural and civilizational foundations of Australia’s key neighbors – such as Japan, Indonesia, China, and India – depending on the flavour of the era. Accordingly, this logic suggests that in order to engage more effectively with the region we need to become more ‘Asia literate’. As such this Asia literacy strategy for building research capacity implicitly favours an Area Studies approach with an emphasis on the importance of language and culture. By giving centre stage to the understanding of the distinctiveness of cultural arrangements it sidelines the analysis of common trends, problems and processes.