Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Why Australia can never be ‘Asian’

I have often pondered the incessant calls from politicians, business leaders, educators and the like for Australians to regard themselves as part of Asia; to see Australia as an Asian country and to accept, or at least be in tune with, the culture and values of our Asian neighbours.

These persuasions are often accompanied by not so subtle threats: Our livelihood is at stake; now that China is our largest trading partner and Japan our second largest, not to mention South Korea at four and Singapore at five, we must trim our sales to the Asian wind, be more accommodating to Asians, even ‘become Asian’.

In a recent interview former Australian Prime Minister, and now Chair of the Washington-based Global Partnership for Education, Julia Gillard called for a greater push in Australian schools to build a sense of Asia literacy and capability that will stand our population in good stead for all of the years to come as we make our future in our region of the world”.

Despite what Ms Gillard and others might wish, Australia is not and cannot be an Asian nation. Our paths have diverged too far and our customs and ways of life are, in fact, quite foreign to each other.
I know from my travels within Asia – and for the moment I am limiting this to East Asia — that there is great amusement at suggestions that Australia could be ‘Asian’. Our way of life is admired by some, despised by others, but there is general acceptance that we are completely, irrevocably ‘different’.

For a start Australia is – despite the views of some fanatics in the Reclaim Australia movement — harmoniously multicultural. Most Asian countries are monocultural (in the case of Japan aggressively so) and where minorities do exist they are often discriminated against or worse (reference China with the Tibetans and the Uighurs and Burma with the Rohingya).
Australia is a democracy – it has known no other form of government as a nation. Democracies do exist in East Asia and in the case of a few robustly so. However, many others are democracies in name only, others are fragile, and still others have authoritarian undertones where open political debate and criticism of those in power is difficult and sometimes dangerous.

We have the case of Thailand where the armed forces see themselves as overlords, allowing civilian governments to function only when they agree with what the generals believe to be the ‘right path’ for the nation. Such a role for the military is anathema to Australians, and rightly so.
So what is Australia? It is not Asian, it is no longer European and despite the claims of some on the right, it is not about to become part of the Caliphate. Quite simply and inevitably, it has developed into a multicultural society where Asians, Europeans, Africans, indeed people from all parts of the world engage in the work of building and sustaining the nation.

We don’t need to pretend to be attached to any other group. We are ourselves. We are Australians.
Of course we do not stand in isolation. Our trade with China, Japan, South Korea and East Asia generally is important, but we should never be beholden to one region or one nation. In any event, figures can be twisted to suit arguments: Europe is still Australia’s largest trading partner if the European Union is considered a single entity, as many do.

But trade should be a business relationship between equals resulting in mutual benefits. There is no need for emotional attachments and certainly not for fawning dependence.
Our ever-deepening reliance on the East Asian market and especially China, has led us to pass up or ignore opportunities elsewhere, particularly in South Asia and to a lesser extent, Africa and South America.

As a multicultural nation Australia has human resources unique in the world. We should use them to engage with the world. No one else is better placed.   



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