Greta Nabbs-Keller is writing a PhD at Griffith Asia Institute on the impact of democratisation on Indonesia’s foreign policy.

There is a critical issue that has so far escaped much attention in the Interpreter debate about declining Asia literacy in Australia – the national security implications.

This is not some abstract debate. In simple terms, the 'Asia literacy wipe-out' translates to fewer Asia specialists in our national intelligence collection and assessment agencies.

It does not take inside experience, contravention of the Official Secrets Act or great leap of imagination to understand that, in the event of a serious deterioration in our strategic environment, our intelligence agencies are going to be at the forefront of monitoring and reporting developments. At the coalface will be Asia linguists, whether they are proficient in Indonesian, Chinese or Hindi.

In a relatively benign security environment we may be able to muddle through with fewer Asia specialists. Indeed, some parts of the Australian intelligence community (AIC) have experienced shortages of linguists for some time now, the effects of which are difficult to quantify.

Anecdotally (you won't find any other evidence), there is no doubt that intelligence collection and analysis suffers with limited langauge skills. Anyone who has worked in the AIC can recount how mediocre language proficiency and a poor understanding of regional socio-political dynamics affects reporting. These cases often become part of the folklore of intelligence agencies and source of great mirth.

But the realities are more serious. Consider what many believe to be the most pressing strategic challenge facing Australia, the rise of China. How China interacts with other major powers in the region and to what degree it asserts its 'core interests' in the East and South China Seas will profoundly affect broader regional security and stability.

In an environment of growing uncertainty, the risk of miscalculation is high. An incident of armed confrontation or even the outbreak of war in our region would require the rapid mobilisation of Asia linguists who can translate, analyse and disseminate time-sensitive intelligence reports for government. In the case of Australia's direct military involvement, our independent capacity to monitor and analyse foreign language communications would be even more critical. You can bet the intelligence targets won't be communicating in English!

Another major terrorist attack involving Australians or unforseen deterioration in Indonesia's politico-security situation would also seriously test our capabilities.

Yes, we have been here before, yet we allow Asia literacy to continue to decline. No Australian government likes to be seen as lax on national security. But in fact, both sides of politics have been equally culpable in allowing a vital national security capability to erode.

For the sake of national security alone, Australia must retain a sufficient capacity in Asian language proficiency and expertise. This will require government intervention and support from the private sector and non-government entities. Asia literacy is an enduring national security requirement, whose diminution may seriously test us in years to come. The argument that increasing numbers of Asians speak English just doesn't cut it in national security terms, I'm afraid.

Photo by Flickr user garryknight.