A chat with…the Victorian Commissioner to Japan and Korea, Adam Cunneen

Adam Cunneen – Commissioner to Japan and Korea since 2012 – shares an insider’s view on how Victorian businesses can best engage with the two countries.

Having lived in Tokyo for well on two decades, you could say Adam is the ultimate career diplomat.

Fluent in spoken Japanese, his career includes postings with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at Tokyo’s Australian Embassy and with Austrade as Japan Commissioner (in addition to running a mid-sized technology business for several years in Japan’s capital).

As Commissioner, Adam spends each work day talking with Japanese and Korean representatives and sums up his job as a mix of matchmaker, advocate, team builder, manager and ‘drawbridge lowerer’: “we service a constant stream of visiting delegates, officials and ministerial visits – it’s likely on any given day I’ll be accompanying a senior delegation to a series of meetings in Tokyo or Seoul.”

Now is a particularly exciting time for Victorian business, he notes, as our state is punching well above its weight in the international trade space.

There are, for instance, over 180 Japanese companies operating in Victoria, and Japan is our third largest two-way trade partner after China and the United States, with exports valued at $1.4 billion in 2015-16.

Meanwhile, the 2014 ratification of the Korea Australia Free Trade Agreement continues to unlock opportunities for engagement. With a population of 50 million, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) is Victoria's seventh largest export market snapping up Victorian aluminium, meat and dairy and energy, along with health and aged care, tourism and international education services.

"Having worked at federal, state and private business levels, I understand the power of a strong stakeholder coalition in optimising opportunities," explains Adam, "and I can say without hesitation that Victoria is the Rolls Royce of international engagement. It gives me enormous pleasure to have such conviction in my advocacy about the opportunities in Victoria. Our job is often to grow the cake, knowing that Victoria will often be growing the largest slice."

Technology is an area where Victoria has taken a first mover advantage, he adds, with the government "investing in industry hubs in all cutting-edge innovation areas, positioning Victoria as Australia’s lead jurisdiction."

Moreover, Japan and Korea are actively looking for development partners so they can compete globally and Victoria is stepping up, helping them access both Asian and world growth markets.

As an example of how that access support could play out, Adam cites potential for Victorian businesses to work with Japanese supermarket chain Aeon, the largest growing supermarket in Asia. "Victoria can position itself with agritech advantages to supply organic produce to Asian markets, targeting the higher-end growth markets of Malaysia, Vietnam, China and India," he points out.

Surprisingly, Adam notes that Victoria tends not to compete with Australia’s other states for Japanese and Korean trade because its main competitors are the US, Singapore, Israel, Canada and the UK.

Building trust

"In highly-structured societies like Japan and Korea, it’s often my role to access organisations at the highest level to pave the way for the Victorian Government to form close working relationships. Initial formality is an essential part of relationship and trust building. I’m permanently in advocacy mode, building the profile and opportunities for Victorian companies across multiple industry sectors and seeing results that have a profound positive effect on the economy and future of Victoria."

Patience pays

"Some of our projects take multiple years to mature. Recently, we’ve seen several high-level achievements that have been five years in the making. It’s very satisfying to see our commitment over time be successful and culminate as game-changers for the Victorian economy."

Strength in numbers

"Often, my mission is to create a dynamic coalition with colleagues in Austrade/Australian Embassy/Members of the Legislative Assembly and so on, so that we can cast a much bigger net with our resources than we could on our own. I spend a lot of time building the strength of our wider ‘team’."

Victoria’s trade and investment power

"When Japanese and Koreans traditionally think of Australia, they think of liquefied natural gas, coal and iron ore and, of course, that’s not Victoria. It’s therefore great that we can portray Victoria as the centre for innovation and cutting-edge science in the Australian economy. Victoria’s future strengths will be in the convergence areas of new life science, information technology (cyber, fintech, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence), new energy, agritech, advance manufacturing, and defence material. Add to that our ‘clean green’ reputation for agri/food/beverages and there’s a strong basis for trade and investment opportunities. Often in Japan, trade is also a lead indicator for investment opportunity – the two are closely connected."