Liam Kearney: The New Colombo Plan’s support is life-changing

Interview by Molly O'Brien

Liam Kearney is the Australian Government’s 2017 New Colombo Plan Fellow, based in Shanghai. The New Colombo Plan is a signature initiative to deepen Australia’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific through supporting undergraduates to undertake study and internships in the region. 

Liam is passionate about the Chinese economy and financial sector, especially in the context of e-commerce for development, and plans to undertake research in the area in Shanghai, assisted by the New Colombo Plan. Having lived in Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, and currently working towards accreditation as a translator - it's clear that Liam's experience in China is just beginning.

Why is an initiative like the New Colombo Plan important?

The New Colombo Plan is forward-looking, youth-focused, targeted investment in Australia’s future. Australia's prosperity is closely linked with the Indo-Pacific, and there is no doubt that the global centre of gravity (in trade, investment, technology, politics, and soft power) is shifting here.

The great insight of the New Colombo Plan is that it recognises the importance of developing a generation of young Australians who have a strong understanding of this region.

The New Colombo Plan’s support is life-changing. It enables its lucky recipients to develop skills and gain experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible in Australia.

It also empowers young people to forge friendships across borders that will drive future cooperation between a host of critical multilateral actors – governments, international agencies, businesses, universities, and individuals. 

The value of the New Colombo Plan will increase exponentially as these networks are consolidated and deepened by new waves of scholars.

How did the New Colombo Plan increase your knowledge of the Indo-Pacific?

With the support of the NCP, I have been lucky enough to work, study, and have experiences in places I never imagined would be possible.

More than that, it has been about connecting with people, young and old, from government, industry, academia, and enterprise, across diverse fields representing Australia’s strong engagement in the Indo-Pacific. 

Learning from these people – their backgrounds, insights, stories, and opinions – has been invaluable. From leaders in Beijing’s top corporates and passionate innovators in Shanghai to extraordinary microfinance workers in rural Myanmar and changemakers in the ASEAN corridor, every week brings a new adventure, new challenges, and new life-lessons. 

NCP has allowed me to build a network that taps directly into some of the most exciting and dynamic changes happening across the Indo-Pacific. Many of my most respected teachers and mentors I am lucky enough to also call my close friends.

NCP also enabled me to participate in the Australia-China Youth Dialogue (ACYD), a four-day summit connecting some of the most extraordinary people in the Australia-China space. ACYD was one of the most transformative experiences of my life and I am so thankful to be part of this amazing network.

What was the application process like?

The application process was quite straightforward, though at times high-pressure.

Beginning with a university recommendation, it is typical that applicants undergo some form of “coaching” to enable them to put forward the strongest possible version of themselves and portray their intended programme in the best light.

The interviews in Canberra are panel-style, typically with four very senior figures representing Government, the private sector and/or tertiary education. Most applicants are unlikely to have faced such an interview before, so this stage can be quite daunting.

I would encourage applicants to seek assistance and resources from past scholars and their universities during the application process.

What was your experience like living in Beijing?

Absolutely phenomenal. Having lived in Beijing before (during high school) I was excited to come back to complete a three-month internship at KPMG’s Global China Practice. There, I began to consolidate my understanding of China’s outbound investment, particularly in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative and 13th Five Year Plan, amongst other initiatives. I also researched some of the most topical issues in the China-US trade and investment corridor which is one of the most critical themes for 2018 (and especially important for Australia). 

The level of exposure to senior people at KPMG and other top private sector figures in the Australia-China bilateral space was unlike anything I had experienced in the past. The networks and friendships I built there will last a lifetime.

While living in Beijing I was also the Project Manager for the Australia-China Emerging Leaders Summit(ACELS), the signature initiative of the Australia-China Youth Association. ACELS is a four-day intensive series of workshops, panels and networking events that brings together 70 young delegates from across both countries.

ACELS drew engagement and praise from senior figures at the Australian Embassy, industry leaders, young professionals and top academics. Australia’s Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China Jan Adams AO PSM noted that ACELS was an important part of people-to-people connections and youth exposure between Australia and China, while the Hon Julie Bishop MP said that events like ACELS are essential to nurturing the future of the bilateral relationship.

I was humbled to work for the Australia-China Youth Association (ACYA) which, supported by a number of branches of DFAT including the New Colombo Plan, carries out extremely valuable work empowering young people in the Australia-China corridor.

Finally, it is worth noting the level of support from Government in Beijing, particularly the Australian Embassy, whose support of New Colombo Plan scholars living in the capital affords us endless opportunities to grow and learn.

Why would you recommend students spend time in Beijing studying and working?

Beijing is the cultural, political and historical capital of China and this combination gives it an “energy” that other cities do not have, particularly given China’s growing importance on the world stage.

While in Beijing, New Colombo Plan scholars will have access to unparalleled opportunities to participate in professional development programs, cultural activities, work placements, industry networking events and so much more.

The Australian community in Beijing is tightly knit and strongly-backed by the Australian Embassy, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and a number of other bilateral actors, giving scholars nearly unlimited opportunity to create rich, meaningful and tailored experiences.

Students and young professionals living in Beijing will also be able to appreciate some of the finer details and nuances of how China ‘functions’, drawing important connections between culture, politics, economic development, and history that are essential in understanding the rise of a modern global power. Beijing is also an incredibly exciting, fast-moving and fun place to live.