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Chinese wind of change for Australian society

By David Robinson - posted Tuesday, 20 March 2012

You would have to be blind and living in a cave not to realise that change is in the wind with regards to China and Australia's place in Asia. From a Chinese food festival in town to the young Chinese couple you met recently, the Chinese wedding you passed in the park to the students from China on the university campus, the Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister to the billion-dollar resource deals every second week, a cultural infusion is occurring alongside China's growing economic and political importance for Australia.

Generally this is a very good thing, and a positive sign that Australia has come some way from the Immigration Restriction Act of the White Australia Policy, and early twentieth century racial characterisations of the Chinese as agents of opium, vice and disease. Of course, with Hansonism not long behind us, the Cronulla riots, bashings of Indian students, and the popularity of shows like 'Border Security', it would be naïve to think fear of the 'Other' does not still lurk below the surface, or indeed parade across the political landscape with its flag hoisted high. But when 'Constructivist' political theorists speak of the intersubjective constitution of social configurations in the international arena, I'm pretty sure the changing relationship between Australia and China fits the bill.

The street-level cultural infusion is a manifestation of the deeper, tectonic shifts in economics and politics that are taking place in the region. Despite new plans for an American military base in the Northern Territory, in support of the Obama administration's turn to the Asia-Pacific – essentially reconfirming Australia's role as a large, stationary aircraft carrier for America – there are murmurings amongst upper-level thinkers and policy-makers that Australia's diplomatic positioning needs to shift.


From the 1970s the British withdrawal to 'East of Suez', and Nixon's retreat from Asia following the Vietnam War, left Australia more alone in the region than ever before as an outpost of Anglo-Saxon society. A new reckoning of Australia's place in the world was needed, and as part of the mainly Labor-dominated political landscape from Whitlam to Keating, a gradual reorientation towards Asia was undertaken. This took a step backwards under the Howard government, which emphasised its alliance with the United States, and generally showed an antipathy towards relations with Asia.

But today it cannot be ignored that Australia's economy booms amid the global turmoil, primarily because of our trade relationship with China, as well as the growing economies of neighbouring states such as Japan and India. Follow the dollars and it is soon apparent that with economic investment comes political and strategic influence; and with the widespread diversification of sources for Chinese mineral and fuel needs throughout Asia, Africa and South America, the potential asymmetry of power in this relationship becomes clear.

Recognition of Australia's shifting strategic environment has been demonstrated in recent Defence White Papers, which acknowledge that China will be an increasingly prominent force in the region, and that Australia cannot rely on the United States for protection. This has fed into a massive defence force expansion, increasing our air, sea and land capabilities. But while preparations for war have been one reaction, it is also clear that if things get to that stage Australia is already in trouble. Conflict between Australia and China is not even necessary for our economy to be buffeted by the storm. With many of China's neighbours being major trading partners with Australia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India), any substantial conflict between the region's major powers may damage Australia's economy and tie us into very awkward political and diplomatic knots. A peaceful Asia is in Australian interests.

The prominent strategic studies professor Hugh White has recently written that if Australia wants to keep the peace in Asia, then it may involve convincing the United States to begin 'sharing' regional leadership with China. Meanwhile, Obama's pivot to the Asia-Pacific and promise to maintain military pre-eminence seems to indicate this will not be easy. While embracing cultural diversity on our streets is one thing, the changing attitudes in the backrooms of government are quite another, so I was surprised at a recent roundtable on Australia's international relations to hear conservative strategic stalwarts speaking of how Australia needs a foreign policy more independent from the United States.

The key question is, is it the case that what is in America's interest is also in Australia's interest? Over the last half century, the United States' military superiority and political position as the leader of the 'Free World' helped to gain it unmatched access and influence throughout much of the globe; while the US currency's international importance and the comparative supremacy of American industry and finance brought the nation prosperity and power. Now that America's primacy is being challenged by other rising nations, its goal will be to maintain the military and economic pre-eminence it has held, or lose the benefits of systemic hegemony. Thus much of the talk in American strategic circles is of 'containing' China, or 'balancing' China by supporting its regional rivals, rather than of sharing global responsibilities. Some important thinkers here in Australia seem to differ.

If the twenty first century is the Asian century then Australia should be well-placed to benefit, but two shifts are required. One is the cultural shift away from the racially-blinkered view of the world, fuelled by fear of the Other and ignorance of the foreign. The second is the recognition of our own needs and realisation that not all of our friends will have our best interests at heart. Today Australia is certainly feeling the winds of change, and I for one look forward to a more cosmopolitan future.

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About the Author

Dr David Robinson is a Lecturer of History at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He completed his doctorate in African History in 2006, and now teaches courses on Global History, Human Rights and Genocide. His research focus is post-colonial Africa and Cold War conflict.

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