Every year the Australian continent drifts a few centimetres towards Asia. Despite this growing physical proximity, events over the past few months suggest that the cultural, political and economic gulf between the two continents is greater than ever.
The question of Australia's place among Asian nations is back in the headlines, most notably because of comments by senior Asian leaders. The Singaporean Prime Minister suggested that many in Asia felt that Australians could not be considered “indigenous Asians” and could not be part of Asia until at least half the population was of Asian descent. The former Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahatir, who seems to relish the occasional spat with Australian leaders, noted that Australia was a “transplant” from another region. The back-to-back visits of the American and Chinese heads of state were another reminder of the delicate balance Australia needs to strike in its foreign policy stance.
The prevailing mood makes it highly unlikely that Australia will be included in any South-East Asian free-trade zone that might evolve out of current negotiations - something that would give Australian exporters a massive boost. As Asian countries seek to consolidate and institutionalise their political and economic ties, the analogy of the “flying geese” once again comes to mind. Locked in a tight formation, Asia is back on the path to rapid economic development. The problem for Australia is that it risks being the odd goose out.
Politically too, Australia finds itself on the outer. Most importantly, despite oft-repeated protests, the Howard government is widely seen outside Australia as being much less interested in Asia than its Labor predecessors were. Certainly, there has been a reaffirmation of Australia's British heritage - something done most recently and eloquently by Howard at the dedication of the Australian War Memorial in London's Hyde Park.
After offering unflinching, sometimes unquestioning, support to American-led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Australia's relationship with America also seems closer than ever. So much so that President Bush quipped a few weeks ago that Australia was not just the deputy but the region's Sheriff. The close relationship between the Sheriff and the President was given dramatic visual effect when Bush and Howard appeared in matching purple suits at the final day of the recent APEC meeting in Bangkok. “We're the purple team,” a beaming Howard is reported to have announced.
However, beyond controversial statements and coincidental outfits lie very serious issues for Australia's identity as a nation and for its place in the world. Australia seems torn between its European heritage and its south-east Asian locale, between security concerns and economic priorities, and between insularity and openness. Too white to be “indigenously” Asian, too far (in time and space) to remain British, too few to be self-sufficient, too small to be a world player, and too fearful to engage its region fully, Australia's is the never-ending story of a search for a sustainable regional identity.
Thirty years ago, then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam called for the beginning of a “creative maturity” in the thinking about Australia's place in world. At that time, Australian involvement in US-led operations in Vietnam had just ended, post-war immigration had led to dramatic changes in the size and make-up of Australian society, and the end of the “White Australia” immigration policy was sowing the seeds of Australia's multicultural future. Yet, despite these changes, that “creative maturity” in popular discourse has never really emerged.
By most accounts, the impetus for Australia's close engagement with Asia in the 1980s and early 1990s came from a small coterie of key Labor leaders, their advisors, and senior business leaders who shared a belief that Australia's economic future lay in Asia. The former Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating, and their Foreign Minister Gareth Evans were articulate and passionate in their support of both domestic multiculturalism and external engagement with Asia. However, the rise of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party in the early 1990s was an extreme and visible manifestation of growing disenchantment with these polices felt by large sections of Australian society.
Worryingly, however, the Howard government seems to have gone too far in the opposite direction. This time around, the message coming out of Canberra is that Australia's security, in an apparently increasingly menacing world, lies in the hands of the United States. If previous Labor governments were guilty of pulling the wool (exports) over the collective eyes of the nation in their zest for being part of Asia, then the current government is equally guilty of playing up the country's vulnerability in order to justify its unswerving support of the Anglo-American nexus. In both instances, critical debates on race, identity, immigration, and multiculturalism have not taken place.
It is unlikely that there will be economic and cultural convergence between Australia and its South-East Asian neighbours anytime soon. Nor can the opinions of regional leaders be wished away. Yet there is an opportunity for Australia to play an important role as a bridge between regions, cultures and economic zones. Like the early 1970s, this is a time of immense challenges and opportunities.
The question that emerges for Australia is not whether it is “in” or “out” of Asia. The real issues are how best to manage the changing nature of Australian society and how best to harness the opportunities of a rapidly changing world. Australia's best chance of successfully managing both processes lies in the very same “creative maturity” that Whitlam talked of.