Australia's Asia Policy

By Shuja, Sharif | Contemporary Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Australia's Asia Policy


Shuja, Sharif, Contemporary Review


AS the twenty-first century begins to unfold, Australia is facing some important political and economic questions. These are about the future directions of Australia's multi-cultural society, its place in the world and region, and especially, its relationships with our Asian neighbours. These matters are very much interrelated.

For a good part of Australia's history, 'Aussies' looked at the world through British eyes. However, a good deal has changed. Young Australians are now exposed to a much broader slice of the world than old generations were. Australia is now a multi-racial society with a multi-cultural ethos based largely on tolerance of diversity. A quite significant number of Australian secondary schools now teach Asian history, culture and languages such as Japanese, Chinese and Indonesian. The rationale for this 'Asia literate' notion is about understanding the importance of Asia and what it means for Australians; casting off old apprehensions about Asia and seeing Asia for what it is -- opportunity; equipping Aussies with the necessary knowledge and skills to take up the challenge of these opportunities; and, finally, being confident in our own special identity as Australians and marching into the next century as an active and effective partner of the Asia-Pacific community.

Australia is now experiencing what the Federal Government's Asian Studies Council recently called 'the tension of being a nation with a European cultural past located in the Asian region'. This mismatch of geography and history has caught up with Australia in the 1990s. Australia cannot 'return to the West', but rather the cultures of Asia and the Pacific constitute, for Australia, an increasingly assertive presence. In May and June as two small Pacific states, Fiji and the Solomon Islands, plunged into ethnic violence and anarchy, influential voices were increasingly heard in Australia calling on Canberra to take a more active role in defence of democracy in the region.

Keeping this approach in mind, it is useful to understand the pattern of Australian involvement in Asia. Australians have become involved in the Asian region in numerous ways during recent decades. One can consider the following examples of Australian regional involvement.

* Australia has participated in regional wars from Korea to Malaysia to Vietnam, and continues to provide defensive assistance to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

* Economic development of Asian and Pacific countries has been the predominant concern of Australia's foreign aid policies, beginning in 1950 with the Australian initiation of the Colombo Plan.

* Australian trade has shifted from close ties to Britain and Western Europe towards a greatly diversified pattern in which Asian trading partners, especially Japan, South Korea and China, have come to play a major role.

* Hundreds of thousands of young Asians have received secondary or higher education in Australian schools, colleges and universities.

* More than 60 per cent of tourists to Australia in 1993 came from Asia and the Pacific region. Inbound tourism generated $10.7 billion in 1993-94, and constituted 11.8 per cent of Australia's total export earnings.

* The most obvious example, the recent Australian peace-keeping intervention in East Timor, will form the subject of a second article next month.

Still, the challenges for the Australian policy-makers are: Will Australia find its future directions and identify through closer economic and political integration with Asia? How far should Australia try to maintain, and indeed consolidate, its cultural and trading links with Europe, especially in the light of the forces making for closer economic and political integration within Europe itself? For Australians, the task now really is to balance our trading links with Europe with the necessity to come to terms with our place in Asia.

Paul Keating, former Labour Prime Minister of Australia, advocates the concept of 'Asian enmeshment or engagement'. …

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