In 1968, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) chose the topic “Australia: A Part of Asia?” for its annual symposium. The university’s professor of history, Frank Crowley, initially knocked back the invitation to speak, declaring in no uncertain terms that Australia never had been and never would be part of Asia. When prevailed upon to take part, he maintained that Australia was an “outpost of Europe”. While he saw value in Asian studies, he did not think Australia should move closer to Asia politically or liberalise its immigration policy. All speakers at the symposium stressed the importance of Australia’s European heritage. None considered Australia part of Asia.
In 1992, Prime Minister Paul Keating delivered an address, “Australia and Asia: Knowing Who We Are”, in which he referenced Robert Menzies’ early speeches celebrating Australia’s place in the British Empire. In the 1930s, wool exports to Japan had grown, speeding Australia’s recovery from the Great Depression and encouraging speculation that the nation’s economic future lay in Asia. Despite such opportunities, Menzies insisted that Australians would always put their “blood ties” with Britain before commerce. In contrast, Keating wanted to establish Australia’s “rightful presence” in the Asia-Pacific. He was concerned that “the ghost of Empire”, faded and diminished as it had become, still stood in the way of the cultural changes needed to promote Asian engagement. He insisted that if Australia did not succeed in forging ties in Asia, it would not succeed anywhere.
For Julie Bishop, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Coalition government until August 2018, the New Colombo Plan became a personal enthusiasm and a key to Asian engagement. She often alluded to the proud antecedents of this scheme, a reminder that Coalition governments had taken Australia’s place in Asia seriously. The original Colombo Plan had been a great success for Percy Spender, Menzies’ Minister for External Affairs. In discussing the New Colombo Plan, Bishop kept her language pragmatic and emphasised economic diplomacy. Australia’s national interest was best served, Bishop maintained, by encouraging Asian prosperity.
In this protracted discussion of identity and place, the ground is constantly shifting.
One of Australia’s defining characteristics is the belief – sometimes clouded by fear, sometimes bedazzled by expectation of oriental riches – that the nation is headed for an Asian future. Destiny allows little room for choice. Despite their attachments to Britain, Australian settlers gradually discovered that their continent’s geography and hot climate was perhaps better suited to Asian than European settlement. In the decade after federation, Australia was a nation adrift, caught between a receding Europe and a rapidly advancing Asia. Concern about this apparent dilemma persisted for many decades. It is still present in 2019.
Australia’s attempts to imagine “Asia” reveal a number of recurrent anxieties: concerns about racial identity, fear of invasion, how to survive and prosper in a non-Western neighbourhood, and the impact of immigrants on the national character.
First, what is “Asia”? It is a shifting idea, defined by the time and circumstance in which it is discussed or envisioned, rather than by geography. The reality of Asia is rather different from this imagining, encompassing a diversity of cultures, languages, religions and histories. At the UNSW symposium, this was emphasised by Sibnarayan Ray, head of Indian Studies at the University of Melbourne, who reminded his Australian audience that “Asia is not one”. He urged his listeners to acknowledge that its people are Chinese, Indian or Indonesian, “but they are hardly Asians”.
Our home-grown writings on imagined Asia typically tell us more about Australia and its cultural and political preoccupations and anxieties than about any specific Asian society. Yet while “Asia” was and is a fluid idea, it nonetheless has a remarkably stable location in time: Asia is always the future. For instance, in October 2012, when Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduced the 314-page “Australia in the Asian Century” White Paper, she twice used the phrase “we have not been here before”, reinforcing her message with reference to the “new China” and the “new India” and describing the world Australia faced in Asia as “unprecedented”. Not so fast. If we look back at the history, Asia dreaming has been a recurring theme in the national narrative.
There are two problems with a mindset fixated on the future. First, Asia is always unfamiliar territory, new and unsettling. Each generation deludes itself that it is the first to face a rising Asia. “Knowing Asia” becomes a project for visionaries who have no time and certainly no need for history. Second, by casting Asia as the future, we fail to understand that the Asia we imagine is a product of our popular culture and national history, with an uncertain basis in reality.