With or without Asia – the Australian perennial dilemma

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently released a white paper entitled Australia in the Asian Century. A good effort, I must say, but one which, under different circumstances would be a non-issue.

True, we could say the same of just about everything in life… if things would have followed another direction, if things would have been handled differently. But see, one of the reasons why we need to make such a case now for Australia strengthening its ties with Asia it’s because up until now (well really, until Mandarin speaking, deposed labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd), Australian leaders have always felt a sense of ambivalence towards the Asian continent that made them unwilling to cross the equator and feel at home as they would in the US or in the UK.

To be fair, in 1989, the Australian Government did commission a study of the then fairly obvious but still not fully unleashed Northeast Asian ascendancy (Garnaut 1989). Since then, Asia continued to change at an unprecedented pace and scale expanding its economic and political reach and influence to the point that Australia now has no option but to rethink its own position or risk remaining outside this new sphere of political, economic and cultural influence in the world.

Distance – yesterday’s tyrant

Although Australia has been blessed with a stunning coastline and vibrant colours, it has always suffered at the mercy of its geographical position.

The Sun Sets on the Apostles

The tyranny of distance has always made it difficult for Australians – on the one hand, English remains the official language of the country, and only until the early seventies the overarching ideology was that of retaining the Anglo-Saxon white heritage and population at all costs;  but one the other hand, Asia seats at its North, threatening at times, challenging at others, but always gaining territory. The more territory Asian gains, the more Australia needs to rethink its position within the region and its own identity.

The centre of gravity is shifting

In a way, distance is no longer the tyrant that it was. Thanks to modern technologies, the globe is a lot smaller today. Australia is no longer isolated from the rest of the world as it was fifty years ago. And yet, at a time when it is easier for Australia to reconnect with its past, the centre of gravity shifts.

Living standards for billions of people in Asia have improved at a rate not previously experienced in human history. As stated in the Australia in the Asian century report itself, between 2000 and 2006, around a million people were lifted out of poverty every week in East Asia alone (Gill & Kharas 2007). Japan, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Singapore and, more recently, China and India doubled their income per person within a decade. Some went on to repeat this achievement two or three times.

Golden Concrete Sunset | Hong Kong

Within only a few years, Asia will not only be the world’s largest producer of goods and services, it will also be the world’s largest consumer of them. By 2025, the region as a whole will account for almost half the world’s output. Many millions of people will have been lifted out of poverty. They will live longer and be better connected to the world.

The report is fairly positive and believes that Australia is currently in the right place at the right time; that is high time for Australia to find a place where to belong to; to become Asian-literate.

A long way North

I believe a lot needs to be improved. One does not become Asian-capable (or one does not turn Japanese, as the song says) by merely learning how to use chopsticks to avoid making a full of oneself in an Asian business lunch or how to bow appropriately to avoid cultural blunders in Japan. Feeling part of the Asian continent involves a long process, that needs to be devoid of purely economic pursuits and interests (“let’s Asianise so we can take a share of the proverbial pie!”); it requires humility and an understanding of who we are and why and how we will fit in the scheme of the region now and for good.

turning japanese

Understanding Asia is not always easy. I, for one, have had over three decades of a love-hate relationship that goes from absolute passion to utter disappointment. And yet, I never cease to get back to it, somehow, and almost inexplicably, it’s a part of me that I could not leave without.

But trying to make sense of what Asia has to offer requires you to understand who you are and why you want Asia to be part of you. And then, you need to knock at their door, with a lot of humility and be prepared to be turned back and to be neglected, ignored and stepped on, particularly now. Why? Because rising national wealth is allowing Asian states to modernise their defence forces, to acquire more advanced capabilities and to project power. Economic growth will put more pressure on energy, water and food resources. Existing regional strategic tensions remain, such as North Korea’s nuclear program and unresolved territorial disputes.

So, this relationship is bound to be full of surprises, misunderstandings and disappointments. But more so if we don’t understand why we need to be part of the continent. If it is merely to take advantage of the situation. It is not going to work. If Australians don’t understand themselves to be part of the region, it will not work. If Julia Gillard gets replaced by conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott, all this good wishes will go down the drain and Australians will continue to search for their identity in an Anglosphere that is now devoid of meaning.

Does Australia fit in the Asian map?

Besides, I wonder how Asians feel about this sudden urge Australians feel to be part of their very varied continent? Do they see Australia as anything other than a resource trading partner and an overpriced tourist destination with exotic marsupials, reptiles and poisonous spiders? Do Asians feel there is a place in the region for what Australia has to offer? Or are years of history insisting on wanting to retain an Anglo-saxon heritage too weighty?

The report reminds us that Australia’s reputation in Asia remains strongly linked to its landscape and lifestyle, and “does not fully reflect the intellectual, creative and commercial credentials of Australia today”.

Promoting a modern, innovative and multicultural image of Australia in Asia is a public diplomacy priority. Yes, definitely. But before that, and before Tony Abbott jumps on board the Australian ship, we really need to understand who we are once and for all, make up our mind about with great humility about who we want to be and the place we want to have in the twentyfirst century political, economic and cultural landscape and embrace it. And then, once we understand ourselves, then, it will be time to see if we do fit in their scheme of things. Not the other way round.

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