Darwin, Aussie pioneer town, seeks survival in Asian markets

Australia turns to fast-growing Pacific region as trade with US, Britain declines

ON a balmy Thursday night, 5,000 people of many nationalities gather at the outdoor Mindil Markets to nibble at honey-chilli chicken wings, gyros, and vegetarian sushi.

They eat on the beach watching the full moon glint across the water. If they followed the silver path north, the next land they would find would be Indonesia.

Darwin, the most northern and most Asian of Australian cities, has had many reincarnations since its creation in 1842. Darwin was named for Charles Darwin who discovered the site in 1839. It took five attempts to establish a permanent settlement in the area. The first lasted three days. Fledgling settlements were beset with insect swarms, disease, earthquakes, lack of water, and cyclones.

The city was bombed heavily by the Japanese during World War II, then virtually destroyed by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. Still the city has continually rebuilt itself.

This time, the rebuilding is of its image - from ``a town of booze, blow flies, and blasphemy,'' as described by famous bush poet Andrew ``Banjo'' Paterson, to a more sophisticated, multiracial city capable of doing business with Asian-Pacific countries.

As Australia seeks to integrate itself with the rapidly growing economies of its Asia-Pacific neighbors, Darwin, because of its location (by air, it is two hours from Jakarta, five hours from Sydney) and history, is becoming a societal blueprint for the rest of the country.

In the regional office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the map on the wall looks odd to North-American eyes. It shows the top end of Australia, Southeast Asia and Indo-China. No United States. No Europe. All the Northern Territory ministers have the same map.

``It's to remind them of what Darwin's place is in the future,'' says Brendan Doran, regional director of the department.

But Darwin is not waiting for the future. A new deep-water port is under construction, and the government is pushing for completion of the long-delayed last leg of the Adelaide-Darwin railroad. Weekly, 24 international flights depart for Asia.

The need for such development has been known for some time. The United States is less open to Australian products, and Britain is turning to the European Union. As trade with these traditional allies declines, markets are expanding in fast-growing Asia.

Total trade with Asia increased by almost 12 percent to nearly $67 billion (Australian; US$49 billion) in 1993. Japan is its largest trading partner. Austrade, the Commonwealth government's trade development wing, has 28 offices and half its resources in Asia.

Pens are running out of ink with all the deals and agreements being made. The Northern Territory government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Indonesia, the first Indonesia has ever signed, that focuses on the development of East Indonesia.

The Northern Territory Chamber of Commerce and Industry signed an accord with its counterparts in Dili and Kupang, East Timor. And Darwin is home to Australia's first Trade Development Zone (TDZ), as well as the first trade minister focused on Asian relations.

Recognizing the city's assets, former Commonwealth Treasurer John Dawkins set up a blue-ribbon Darwin committee last year to look at the development of Darwin as the gateway to Asia.

This tropical, laid-back city is uniquely suited to the job. Its economic and cultural links to the Asia-Pacific go back centuries. Across the street from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is a tamarind tree planted by Indonesian fishermen who came from Indonesia 200 years ago for prized sea cucumbers. Their language lives on in some Aboriginal groups, with whom they intermarried.

The 1800s Gold Rush brought Chinese, who stayed on to become active in business. Darwin has remained a peaceful mix of many races. It is the only Australian city to have popularly elected two Chinese Lord Mayors (city leaders). Today, there are 50 nationalities in Darwin, and 20 percent of its residents are of Asian descent.

``We're interested in long-term relations,'' says Lyal Mackintosh, chief executive of the Northern Territory Department of Industries and Development. ``It is in our interests to have a prosperous neighbor who understands us and will become familiar with our products. As their market grows richer, it will want the kind of products we sell.''

The links go beyond trade to include security, culture, sports, education, and tourism. Hordes of public servants, schoolchildren, and businesspeople are learning Indonesian. The Northern Territory provides educational assistance for 21 schools in Indonesia. The biennial Araphura Sports Festival draws together adults from Northern Australia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands for 18 sports.

``Asians won't just do trade,'' Mr. Mackintosh says. ``With Asians regionally you've got to take whole lives into balance, find out what's important to them. The territory understands the values of Asia, primarily because they're all our neighbors.''

``It's people-to-people,'' Mr. Doran says. ``You can't do it fast. The feedback we've been getting is that companies doing business in Asia should not expect returns under three years. It's a slow process - Indonesian law is different, the system is highly centralized, though that's changing.''

Peter Carew is one of the young entrepreneurs finding that out firsthand. His company, Integrated Technical Services, produces solar water systems and solar home-electrical systems and sells them in Indonesia.

He formed an association with a local businessman, who acts as distributor. They've supplied 16 water-pump systems and 40 home-power systems in East Nusa Tenggara, a province of Eastern Indonesia, and a system to power overhead projectors in East Timorese schools. Sales have tripled in three years.

``There are 1,600 villages in East Nusa Tenggara, 1,300 of which have no power,'' Mr. Carew says. ``They're not big users, just enough for water, a couple of lights, and TV. It's a quality-of-life thing.

``We're in our early days,'' he says. ``It takes a long time to get orders. We've learned by experience that you've got to be friends rather than business associates. We're not trying to make a quick quid and get out.''

So, like so many in Darwin, Carew is taking Indonesian language classes. ``The first time I went over, people were friendly,'' he says.

``The second time, they said, `How's your Indonesian coming?' ''

All of those new televisions Carew's electrical systems will light up will need something to air, and the Australian Broadcasting Corp. wants to provide the programming.

Eighteen months ago the ABC launched a new free-to-air television service created for the Asian market, called Australia Television. Broadcast on the Indonesian international satellite, it provides a daily half-hour news bulletin produced for the Asia-Pacific region, as well as programing rebroadcast from the ABC. The potential audience for selected programs is estimated to be 670 million viewers.

The new program has already doubled its output and is making a name for itself. ``Our show, running at 11:30 p.m., was beating CNN,'' says Prakash Mirchandani, head of ABC Television News Services, Northern Territory.

``We're the first people the Republic of China has signed a re-broadcast agreement with. And the generals in Thailand who run the TV station want to send people to ABC for training,'' he says.

Mr. Mirchandani attributes the success of the programming to the guidelines editors follow for cultural sensitivity established by Radio Australia, which has had a presence in the region for 50 years: ``We've avoided the charges of cultural imperialism that have been leveled at other big players.''

Changing the mind-set and reputation of an embattled pioneer town to one of an efficient global player takes time.

The Trade Development Zone, located on the outskirts of Darwin, was initially conceived as an industrial area providing manufacturing facilities and incentives for mainly overseas companies. It has run into some rough spots and has many vacancies. The TDZ is now reorienting itself to Australian companies wanting to do business overseas.

``It tried to grow too soon, too fast,'' Louise Fitzgerald, TDZ's marketing director says candidly. ``The TDZ needed time to grow and develop. And we're doing research to find out what our strengths and weaknesses are.''

Still, executive chairman Don Watts is optimistic. ``This place in 20 year's time will be a significant industrial asset,'' he says. ``You can't have 200 hectares [500 acres] of land, 200 yards from a port, near trucking depots, on the edge of the Adelaide-to-Darwin railroad, within a couple of miles of an international airport, and be on the edge of Asia without becoming successful.

``No one is suggesting that the next five years are not critical. But we're seeing significant building blocks going into place that are lowering the cost of shipping. You put it all together and look at the costs that are emerging today in major centers of Asia. You will find that Darwin cannot fail, and that the TDZ will become the focus of that for all Australia.''

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