By Michael Jacobson
In a small room with no view, Professor Russell Trood expands upon a vast region and a daring vision.
The region is Asia, its staggering diversity confirmed by a map on the wall behind the professor, who then reveals the vision by observing: “Yes, you look at Asia’s size, its obvious complexity, and it can be bewildering. Yet there are many pathways into Asia and enormous potential for those willing to negotiate them and seek out the opportunities that exist there.”
A man of considerable credentials, Professor Trood spent six years as a Senator for Queensland (2005-11), including a stint as Chair of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee.
Before that he was a Professor of International Relations and spent a decade as the Director of the Centre for the Study of Australia-Asia Relations in the Department of International Business and Asian Studies at Griffith University.
Since leaving the Senate, Professor Trood has served as a prime ministerial Special Envoy and he has now returned to Griffith as a Professor in its new School of Government and International Relations.
However, it’s the Asian connection that is pivotal to his current work at Griffith. Timely too, given the Federal Government’s release late last year of a white paper on Australia’s role in the so-called Asian Century.
Professor Trood knows Asia and respects its cultural, political, strategic and economic values and challenges. Its many textures, as he puts it.
“Asia is a dynamic, rapidly changing region of immense importance to Australia’s future. Engaging fully and effectively should be the highest priority of Australia’s foreign policy,” he says.
Such engagement has been a core principle for Griffith University since it was established in 1975 – it was one of the first universities in Australia to offer a comprehensive degree in Asian Studies to undergraduates – and that investment, both educational and philosophical, is ongoing.
A prime example is the setting for this conversation, the Griffith Asia Institute at the university’s Nathan campus. The institute is an academic leader of national research into Asian politics and foreign policy.
Meanwhile, Griffith’s enthusiasm for Asia is about to undergo a substantial overhaul aimed at finding ways to expand and deepen its regional connections.
As chairman of the Asia Review Committee – established by the Vice Chancellor, Professor Ian O’Connor – Professor Trood has been sifting through submissions received from across each of Griffith’s campuses and all academic disciplines. Business, government and the community are also involved.
While some submissions are as brief as a few lines, others are comprehensive. There are even two from Griffith Chancellor, former Queensland Governor Leneen Forde.
While for the time being Professor Trood is keeping the contents of the submissions to himself, the review fits neatly with Griffith’s determination to consolidate its reputation as one of Australia’s most Asia-engaged universities.
“The university’s connections with many of the countries in Asia are longstanding and of day to day importance. They are already happening,” he says.
“Better still, they are working, as is reflected by hundreds of memoranda-of-understanding with Asian universities, co-operative programs in disciplines ranging from physiotherapy, security, the environment and creative arts, to the role of the Griffith Asia Institute itself.
“It’s not enough to educate our students about Asia’s politics, languages, economics and cultures. That is just one aspect of Griffith’s responsibility.
“This dynamic centre of the world’s economy is moving fast, and not just in China. Throughout the Asia-Pacific region, political, economic and social change is occurring, wealth is growing, a new middle class is emerging and political relations are dynamic.
“What’s more, this is our region, Australia’s region, and so this review is in that context and comes at a time when it is right for Griffith to reflect upon its already strong connections with Asia, assess where it sits at this moment, and identify the next stages in its multi-layered relationship with the region.”
Professor Trood cites increasing opportunities in Burma, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, India, China and elsewhere, in areas such as research, teaching and building shared knowledge and understanding.
He is also pleased that contemporary Australia continues to move away from the patronising, discriminatory view of Asia that existed after World War Two.
“Universities have helped in that process and that’s why Griffith aims to continue being at the forefront of new ideas and knowledge,” he says.
“To that end, this review seeks ways to build upon the university’s already extensive knowledge, experience and strong reputation in order to enhance our place in the region and embrace possibilities it would be folly to ignore.”
So, if the question concerns where Griffith University sits in the context of the Asian Century, the answer is that it sits comfortably and capably, but never complacently.
Michael Jacobson is a freelance journalist and best-selling Australian author (Windmill Hill) commissioned for this article.