The New Australia

Leveraging our changing identity in the Asian Century

Next Voices

At the station, a cylindrical brick column feels anachronistic beneath the glass dome, in the glow of bright, brilliant signage. While shoppers ride escalators, chatting in their respective tongues, a billboard emits a reddish hue that morphs into simplified Mandarin. Takeaway coffees make their way to a kaleidoscope of hands as baristas are thanked in Mandarin, Bahasa Indonesia, Cantonese. Their voices are a symphony of contemporary Australia.

This is Melbourne Central, a shopping centre located in the heart of the CBD, and there are few better illustrations of Australia’s changing demographic and our cultural relationship with the Indo-Pacific and Asia. As an Australian citizen who spent his formative years in Malaysia, I often joke when I’m here that I haven’t left Kuala Lumpur.

John Howard, speaking about Australia in 1996, during his first overseas trip as prime minister, declared, “We do not claim to be Asian.” Yet as I glance at the faces in Melbourne Central, I can’t help but ponder how Australians will see themselves in the coming decades. In a 2016 survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 28.5 per cent of Australians aged fifteen and older were born overseas. I am among that number. As globalisation continues to lower the barriers to migration, this percentage will continue to increase. I wonder if the growth will lead to even more confusion than we’ve traditionally had about what constitutes an Australian identity, or if it will usher in a modern conception of Australia’s national character that champions pluralism.

Modern Australia

Is Australia still the lone south-eastern front of Western civilisation, ambiguously placed within the Oceania and Indo-Pacific regions? What are the elements that define our geopolitical identity, that ensure we pursue regional diplomacy in a culturally sensitive way without compromising our national security? Are we Western, Eurasian or already Asian?

The issue isn’t so much whether individual Australians fit within certain socio-political categories, but what constitutes a “modern Australia”. I believe a modern Australia involves acknowledging the demographic, economic and cultural changes the country is undergoing while maintaining our traditional alliances with the West.

Australia’s cultural identity is constantly evolving. Depending whom you ask, Australia either has a history that spans more than 60 000 years and begins with Aboriginal settlement of Arnhem Land or is a relatively young country born with Captain Cook’s arrival at Botany Bay in April 1770. (One of these views is, of course, incorrect, but still surprisingly widely held. According to Indigenous historian Bruce Pascoe, one need only refer to the journals of Australia’s pioneer settlers to discover the existence of densely populated Aboriginal villages featuring wooden buildings with clay plastering. Pascoe’s work attempts to distinguish between Anglo mythology and historical truth when telling the story of the world’s smallest continent and largest island.)  

Australia’s cultural identity today is not only Anglo and Indigenous, but also Asian. Since the early 1970s Asian immigration has increased, largely due to the dismantling of the White Australia Policy by 1973 and the efforts of the Fraser government, which developed Australia’s first comprehensive refugee policy in response to the arrival of Vietnamese asylum-seekers displaced by the Vietnam War. Let’s also not forget Bob Hawke’s pro-immigration policies after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Australia is no stranger to connections with Asia, or to Asian-Australians, from the many contributors to Alice Pung’s Growing Up Asian in Australia, which features on school curriculums, to popular comedians such as Anh Doh and prominent politicians such as Penny Wong. We share cultural events with Asian cities; Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup in 2007 and hosted the finals in 2015.

So as our Asian population grows in size and influence, how can Australia take advantage of an Asian Century?

Australia in the Asian Century

Since Deng Xiaoping coined the term “Asian Century” in his meeting with Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1998, it has been used to describe the rise of Asian geopolitical, economic and cultural influence worldwide. Chinese president Xi Jinping, with his ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, plans to satiate the infrastructure appetites of a growing South-East Asia and southern Pacific. This will markedly increase China’s global reach and influence, even as the initiative is criticised by some economists as “debt diplomacy” – offering funds to smaller nations in return for diplomatic support. Seven of the world’s largest economies in 2030 will be markets that are currently emerging, according to a recent report by multinational banking and financial services company Standard Chartered, with Asia’s share of GDP rising from 28 per cent to 35 per cent by that time – a figure that combines the projected GDP of the United States and Europe. From the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) alliance to the development of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Asian Development Bank, global monetary policy is already no longer dominated by Washington Consensus institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The future is Asian, but is Australia ready?

Geopolitically, Australia’s traditional allies are not faring well, and a turbulent, precarious Western world has only further complicated the debate about Australia’s regional identity. The power of the British Empire lives on increasingly only in story and nostalgia – through Netflix streams of The Crown. Theresa May’s atrocious Brexit, no-Brexit, hard-Brexit deals have exacerbated the destabilisation of an already waning European Union, while France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, faced the Yellow Vest protests earlier this year. Meanwhile, US president Donald Trump’s unilateralism shapes a national foreign policy based on “America first” rhetoric. Since signing the ANZUS Treaty in 1951, Australia has fought with the United States in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, but the United States failed to offer boots-on-the-ground support for peacekeeping missions in East Timor; now Trump’s unpredictability has led to uncertainty about whether he will honour the obligations of the Treaty should Australia find itself in need.

At the same time, warfare is evolving from physical realms to cyberspace and telecommunications, as demonstrated when the Australian Parliament was hacked in February this year by a “sophisticated state actor” believed to be located in Asia. Recently, former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull urged the United Kingdom not to use Huawei to build its 5G network based on advice of threats to national security.

While China is our largest trading partner and helped to shield Australia’s economy during the 2008 global financial crisis, the burgeoning China–United States rivalry places Australia at a crossroads between biting the hand that feeds it and keeping old friends happy. Our trade with China and other Asian nations will grow, in no small part because of the increase in Asian-Australians. But we cannot alienate our traditional allies without leaving ourselves open to economic and security risks. The road to peaceful Sino–Australian relations will require cautious foreign policy that doesn’t compromise Australia’s trade and defence policies.

Feeding into this complex dynamic are Clive Hamilton’s warnings, in his controversial book Silent Invasion, of the Chinese Communist Party secretly infiltrating Australia’s democratic institutions by exploiting our weak political structures and our professed affinity for multiculturalism. Whether you believe Hamilton’s rhetoric, it’s worth acknowledging that such arguments, if made without adequate understanding of the complexities of the Chinese-Australian diaspora, risk stereotyping all Chinese-Australians as “silent” supporters of the CCP. This will only set back years of work in developing a better Sino–Australian relationship.

Many Chinese-Australians have come to call Australia home. Not all tertiary students from China seek to undermine our democratic institutions, and they are most certainly not all spies. Australia’s displays of xenophobia towards Chinese immigrants and Australian-born Chinese – such as Alan Jones’s tweet that Chinese students should have their visas cancelled for “bullying Australian lecturers” – must be addressed via greater education to ensure we all understand the difference between economic opportunities and threats to national security. If we fail to do so, Australia risks hampering future relations with China, and potentially with other Asian countries, because of a sensationalist domestic political discourse. As our Asian-Australian population grows, this seems flawed and near-sighted.

How Australia can embrace the future

In 2014, Australia reinvigorated the old Colombo Plan scholarships with the New Colombo Plan to improve our international trade policy and cultural presence within the Indo-Pacific region. This was a valuable step in fostering greater links with Asia, but more resources must be devoted to ensure that Australia doesn’t become a nation of ignorant, entitled, arrogant bigots, as some of our regional critics would have us.

For example, a “modern Australia” could do with closer bilateral agreements with Indonesia. According to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, last year Indonesia enjoyed an annual economic growth of 5.18 per cent, marking its fastest growth rate since 2013. Indonesia’s economy is also projected to surpass Australia’s by 2030. While the recently negotiated Indonesia–Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement seeks to eliminate all Australian tariffs on imports from Indonesia, and 94 per cent of Indonesian tariffs, Australia can do more to leverage opportunities with this rising star of economic growth. It’s disappointing that Australia’s interest in Indonesian Studies has waned since the 1970s. Ironically, this waning began after the fall of Suharto and the opening up of Indonesia’s economy. A 2016 study conducted by Monash University’s Australia–Indonesia Centre revealed that 70 per cent of Indonesians believe that Indonesia is more important to Australia than Australia is to Indonesians.

The ASEAN–Australia–New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, signed in 2009, is the deepest and broadest of the five free trade agreements between dialogue partners and ASEAN. Building on this trade integration with our Indo-Pacific neighbours, Australia could intensify its efforts to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – which is run on consensus – by achieving support from all current ASEAN members to approve Australia’s membership. By upgrading its current “dialogue partner status” to membership, Australia would improve its multilateral relations with ASEAN member countries geopolitically and economically, as we would be able to benefit from ASEAN 2025 Connectivity’s people mobility, sustainable infrastructure and digital innovation initiatives.  

In security terms, instead of relying solely on old alliances, perhaps it is time to consider new, more cost-effective ways of implementing our defence strategy. The Australian government’s 2016 Defence White Paper proposes a funding plan of $730 million by 2026 to the Next Generation Tech Fund, managed by the Department of Defence, for research into and development of projects including enhanced human performance, integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Bolstering our cybersecurity capabilities can secure the intellectual property of Australian companies supplying high-tech equipment to the defence force. This will help to ensure that our highly sought information on the latest developments in radar and surveillance systems do not fall into the wrong hands.

And we must avoid more leadership blunders, such as proposing to move Australia’s foreign embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv without considering our existing bilateral relationships with our Muslim neighbours in the Indo-Pacific region. Australia should focus on improving cross-cultural relationships without relying on international measures to achieve domestic interests.

The debate about how “Asian” Australia is and should be will continue to fill the halls of university lectures and parliament, and will be talked about in Australian households over the coming years. How we leverage our increasingly Asian identity in the decades to come is the more substantial question, with which we are only just beginning to grapple.

“I do not believe that Australia faces a choice between our history and our geography,” John Howard once told an Indonesian delegation. “Neither do I see Australia as a bridge between Asia and the West, as is sometimes suggested.” Perhaps Howard was referring to the genesis of a modern Australia: the idea that Australia need not be either Western or Asian but a healthy mix of those from Anglo, Asian and other backgrounds willing to work hard in a multicultural meritocracy? Australia could be a pioneer in redefining national identity as a concept that evolves with the forces of globalisation, economics and changing societal values, as opposed to a narrow, inflexible construction dictated by the culture of whichever dominant ethnic group currently inhabits our soil. This would influence the way we interact with and embrace our neighbours, as well as the way we see ourselves.

Is it so hard for Australia to conceive of a multicultural future? Because in an Asian Century, this is our reality, and we would be clever to welcome it.


Edward Wong is a writer and director at Rock Rehab Productions and completing a Master of International Relations at Monash University. Read our interview with Edward here.