‘why study asia?’ The answer frequently given to this question is that Asia, particularly the East and Southeast Asian region, is of great economic significance to the world economy in general and to the Australian economy in particular. In 2002, seven of Australia's top ten export destinations were Asian countries, and the East Asian and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries purchased over 53 per cent of Australia's exports (DFAT 2003). The economic growth and prosperity of these countries are of consequence for Australia's economic fortunes. For some commentators, the reason for studying Asia is primarily if not solely about the economic advantages to be gained through a closer engagement with the East and Southeast Asian region. This is the argument that has often, in the past two decades, been advanced to support the need for the study of Asia and Asian languages at Australia's schools and universities (Garnaut 1989: Chapter 15; East Asia Analytical Unit 1992). While this pragmatic argument does have some merit, it places the importance of studying Asia on too narrow a foundation. There are many reasons – humanistic, historical, political, religious, cultural, strategic – for studying Asia. The study of Asia is not and should not be just about economics (Maguire 1991).
While the case for studying Asia should not rest on a purely economic foundation, there are persuasive economic reasons for taking an interest in East and Southeast Asia, particularly from an Australian perspective.