Engaging with Asia? We’ve been here before

Australia has a long history of engagement with Asia, as Melbourne’s Chinese Museum demonstrates. Greenstone Girl

AUSTRALIA IN THE ASIAN CENTURY – A series examining Australia’s role in the rapidly transforming Asian region. Delivered in partnership with the Australian government.

Today, Professor David Walker looks to the past to help understand what we mean by “the Asian Century”.

In introducing the Henry inquiry into Australia’s place in the Asian Century, prime minister Julia Gillard twice used the phrase, “We have not been here before”. There is some truth in this observation, but it also captures a particularly Australian response to the history of Asian engagement.

While the understandable focus of the Henry inquiry is Australia’s place in the Asian Century and the shift of economic, political and cultural power to the region, there is a strong case to be made for putting this inquiry in a broader historical context.

One of the repeated motifs of our history is that the Asia we face is always new and quite unprecedented. The past, according to this view, offers no guide to the future and tells us nothing worth knowing. No sophisticated society would take such a dismissive view of its own history. The nations we seek to engage with in the region certainly do not.

Australia’s Asian past

There has been a sustained commentary on the implications of Australia’s proximity to Asia from the late nineteenth century since Federation when many of our understandings of the kind of society we wanted to create were laid down.

While this is not always a comforting story, it does us more credit in the region to be open rather than evasive about our history. When it comes to weighing the past, no-one’s hands are entirely clean.

The first invasion novel (starring the Chinese as invaders) was the sensitively titled “White or Yellow: a Story of the Race War of AD 1908” by William Lane. It was serialised in 1888.

On a more positive note, the first systematic case for the teaching of Asian languages in Australian universities dates from 1908.

The fascinating and often surprising history of Asian “engagement” is not well-known and still has only a minor place in the teaching of Australian history at secondary and tertiary level.

It is all very well to seek a fuller understanding of Asia, but that should be accompanied by a closer knowledge of how Australians have understood and responded to Asia. How can we hope to know “Asia” without knowing ourselves?

Such an exercise would help clarify the disconnections between what we have variously imagined “Asia” to be up to, its alleged schemes, plots and ambitions and what we can learn from the history of the region. Our imaginings and their histories do not necessarily coincide.

Reaching for hyperbole

A further reason for knowing the history is that it can expose and help avoid unhelpful stereotypes. The notion of “unprecedented Asia” is a case in point. The belief that the new Asia is unprecedented, something outside of our history, reinforces rather than diminishes anxieties about Australia’s vulnerability to Asia.

It suggests overwhelming forces and inundating floods that destroy whole communities. We need to know how such Orientalist constructions of Asia entered our language and thinking in order to avoid them and to see more clearly the real opportunities and threats arising from our regional location.

One of the defining characteristics of a robust democracy is the willingness to expose both the decisions of the past and their underlying rationale to historical scrutiny. One of the dangers we face in thinking of the new Asia as unprecedented is to be trapped in the past, rather than informed by it.

In concrete terms, the Australian response to its impending Asian future has tended over the previous century to oscillate between extremes: alarmist anxiety at the prospect of our society being swallowed up by advancing Asia or, at the other extreme, dreams of new rivers of gold. When it comes to Asia we reach for hyperbole.

Seeing ourselves in Asia

Our task is to understand the kind of society we want to create over the next 50 years. While international factors will influence our future, they need not determine it.

There is also much to be gained by recognising that behind the great abstractions – Asia, the Asian Century, Asia-literacy – are the people-to-people contacts that provide the strongest foundation for knowing Asia. Though they may be harder to itemise and tabulate, these human contacts will provide rewards as enduring as any we are likely to derive from the export of iron ore.

I should add that I welcome the Henry inquiry, so much so that I believe a good case can be made for having a regular audit of our thinking about Australia’s place in the region.

Had there been enquiries of this kind every ten years from 1972, Ken Henry would have the benefit of four previous inquiries examining responses to Australia’s place in the region.

Considered reflection of this kind would certainly deepen and extend our understanding of what “engagement” means, how that has been understood, and – to varying degrees – welcomed or resisted.

And we must remember that one of the first things we see in looking to Asia are the hopes, fears and preoccupations of our own society.

This is part ten of Australia in the Asian Century. You can read other instalments by clicking the links below:

Part One: Want to get ahead this century? Learn an Asian language

Part Two: Australia’s great, untapped resource … Chinese investment

Part Three: Beyond China: Australia and Asia’s northern democracies

Part Four: More than a farm on top of a mine: Australia’s soft power potential in Asia

Part Five: Australia can lead the fight against Asia’s lifestyle disease epidemic

Part Six: Why Australia needs an Asian Century Institute

Part Seven: Taming the tigers: tourism in Asia to become a two-way street

Part Eight: Australia will need a strong constitution for the Asian Century

Part Nine: A focus on skills will allow Australia to reap fruits of its labour

Part Eleven: China, India and Australian gas – who controls energy in the Asian Century?

Part Twelve: Dealing with the threat of deadly viruses from Asia

Part Thirteen: Defence agreements with US harm Australia’s reputation in Asia

Part Fourteen: As Asia faces climate change upheaval, how will Australia respond?

Part Fifteen: How Australia can become Asia’s food bowl