One of the most controversial policies in the government’s Asian Century white paper last year was the recommendation that, by 2025, one-third of ASX200 board members should have “deep experience and knowledge” of Asia. But what about our politicians?

Senator Nick Xenophon was caught out on the weekend engaging too closely in Malaysian politics for the ruling party’s liking, but how many of our other elected representatives are actively involved in Asia? A Crikey investigation of federal parliamentarians’ taxpayer-funded international study tours has found the traditional focus on Europe and North America is changing — although the ongoing dearth of trips to China is remarkable.

Labor and Liberal representatives present for trips in roughly equal numbers. Greens don’t usually take part, although an exception was made for Sarah Hanson-Young on a renewable energy-focused delegation to Europe in 2011.

Parliamentary delegations have had the reputation of being a bit of a European getaway gravy train. But our politicians actually spend a lot of time in Asia. According to parliamentary records, this 43rd Parliament has sent 22 official delegations to Asia, compared to 19 trips to Europe and North America, and 16 to South America, Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific combined. This represents a slight pivot towards our northern neighbours when compared to the last Parliament, which sent 18 delegations to Asia, 21 to Europe and North America, and 19 to the rest of the world.

Among the trips to Europe and the US are the annual United Nations regular session delegations, as well as NATO meetings and trips to the OECD in France. These international organisation meetings, in particular the UN, represent further opportunities for meetings with leaders and diplomats from around the world.

In Asia, Australia attends annual ASEAN meetings as an observer, and the Asia Pacific Parliamentary Forum. Last year the Prime Minister attended the East Asia Summit in Cambodia’s Phnom Penh. Tiny East Timor was been visited by official delegations three times under the current Parliament, two of those being observer missions during Timorese elections last year.

Our neighbours in Bali and Jakarta have received five visits from the 43rd Parliament, thanks to Australia’s close institutional and security relations with Indonesia. Australia and Indonesia also conduct annual leaders’ and trade ministers’ meetings, and last year staged the inaugural two-plus-two ministerial forum, where the foreign affairs and defence ministers of each country meet.

China is the other country where Australia’s big Asian interests lie. Yet despite stronger economic and people-to-people links between Australia and the Middle Kingdom, we have yet to develop strong diplomatic ties like with Indonesia. Despite being Australia’s largest trading partner and potentially our largest security concern in the next few decades, the Prime Minister has so far only visited China once, though she’ll be travelling to China for the second time in April for the Boao Forum. There have been three parliamentary delegations to China since late 2010.

“It is remarkable that Gillard has only visited China once as Prime Minister,” the Lowy Institute’s China expert Linda Jakobson told Crikey. “She is heading to the Boao Forum this coming April but this is not an official visit. To establish better communication at the political level, top leaders need to have personal contact on a regular basis.”

In a report last year, Jakobson suggested: “Australia should pursue an annual strategic and economic dialogue with China at the cabinet minister level, with three strands: political, defence and economic.”

Another relevant area is how much prime ministers embrace Asia. Traditionally it’s taken leaders a little while. Before developing his special interest in Indonesia, Paul Keating famously suggested that Asia was something you flew over on the way to Europe.

John Howard’s first visit to China was reportedly an eye-opener. The Prime Minister, astounded by the huge number of new skyscrapers going up around Shanghai, quickly realised that China’s economy was undergoing significant changes. Nonetheless, Howard’s focus on national security after September 11 drew Australia closer to its English-speaking allies.

Kevin Rudd (aka Lu Kewen) is perhaps the odd one out, as a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat — though this didn’t always help keep him in China’s good books. Julia Gillard, after claiming early in her prime ministership that foreign affairs was not her passion, has gone on to visit China, Japan, India, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Tony Abbott, who may be Australia’s next PM, is well known for his musings on the Anglosphere, though the opposition has criticised the government for being too focused on Geneva, rather than Jakarta.

*This story was inspired by a forum on foreign affairs held at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne this week, at which Jakobson spoke

Peter Fray

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