Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 17:45 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 17:45 | SYDNEY

Following the money into Asia


Nick Bryant


5 April 2012 09:34

To track the staggering wealth of country's richest ever person, Gina Rinehart, is also to chart the commercial impact of Asia, and the reorientation of Australia's economy.

When her father, Lang Hancock, signed a hugely lucrative iron ore royalties deal in the early 1960s, it was with the British mining giant Rio Tinto at the encouragement of an American, Tom Price, the then vice-president of the US steel giant, Kaiser Steel. The most recent leaps in Gina Rinehart's personal net wealth, however, have come from deals negotiated with two Asian companies.

In January, she sold a 15% share of her flagship project, the Roy Hill iron ore mine, which is due to become operational in 2014, to the South Korean iron and steel giant, Posco. Last September, Indian conglomerate GVK paid $1.26 billion for her coal and infrastructure interests in Queensland. Citigroup now predicts that Asia's richest woman will also eventually become the world's richest.

Just as Lang Hancock was alert to the potential of Japan as an export market for Australian iron ore, his daughter, Gina, was quick to grasp the significance of China. What makes the family story even more noteworthy is that it also illustrates the benefits of opening up the Australian economy. After all, when Lang first spotted oxidised iron in the Pilbara in the early 1950s, the federal government prohibited iron ore exports because of the scarcity of such a valuable resource.

It is precisely these kind of corporate cases studies – the Asiafication of the national flag carrier, Qantas, is another, as is James Packer's gambling investment in Macau – that are encouraging what the political theorist Tim Soutphommasane calls the 'mercenary tone' of the conversation about Australia's engagement with Asia.

It is a discourse, he suggests, in which 'economic self-interest' has become a bar to 'genuine cultural engagement.' Without even noticing it, 'we've fallen into the habit of making a monetary fetish out of our relationships with Asia, seeing its value only in terms of dollar signs.'

Finding areas of common agreement and identifying shared values offer a way forward, he says: 'Might there be value in reflecting on the similarities between Asian concepts of communal obligation and our own value of mateship?' Encouraging the learning of Asian languages for their own intrinsic value rather than their commercial usefulness should also be the goal, though the attractiveness to potential employers of curriculum vitae adorned with a qualification in Mandarin or Japanese is also surely a helpful spur.

Certainly, more could be done on the cultural front, where the dominant influences in Australia remain British and American, a historical trend that the internet has actually reinforced. It is hard to disagree with Lyndon Terracini, the artistic director of Opera Australia, who recently lamented the prevalence of a 'meat and three veg' culture, and complained that 'the extraordinary tastes of Asia' routinely were ignored. We still await a cultural version of 'Asian fusion' cuisine that has made dining out in Australia such an exotic and flavoursome adventure.

On the plus side, Australian art and culture is making a mark in Asia. Just witness how the Beijing Olympics showcased so many Australian architects, who were responsible for seven major legacy projects, including the famed Water Cube (above). Then there was the success of the Mind and Body indigenous art exhibition, seen by over 85,000 people in China.
Sport is also making connections. In 2010, the AFL held an exhibition game in China, the so-called Shanghai Showdown between Melbourne and the Brisbane Lions. Hong Kong or Tokyo now plays host to the Bledisloe Cup. Australian golfers compete in the OneAsia tour. The Australian Tennis Open markets itself as the grand slam of the Asia Pacific. The Socceroos are now part of the Asia federation of FIFA rather than the Oceania Football Confederation. A-league clubs compete in the AFC Champions League.
The 'Come Play!' campaign, Australia's unsuccessful bid for the 2022 World Cup, also to turned the old tyranny of distance idea on its head. Australia, the bid claimed, was the 'gateway to Asia'. Let us hope this campaign does not serve as a metaphor – of an Asia-oriented Australian ambition that quickly came to be thwarted.

Photo by Flickr user frankartculinary.