One hundred years ago one of Australia's leading intellectuals, W. H. Pearson, wrote a book on the future, National Life and Character: A Forecast. He ranged learnedly across different times and different societies. Pearson predicted the decline of character as the world grew both more democratic and more comfortable. Anglo-Saxons would decline in relative importance as populations grew and the empty spaces of the globe became more populated. Pearson imagined an important role for Australia as one of the last spaces on earth where "the higher races" might develop their capacities and distinctive strengths. In this vision of the future, Australia was seen as a breeding ground for European blood stock, a place removed from Asian influences and certainly from Asian immigration. Pearson's book had quite an impact, not least on the American historian and race theorist Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color, one of the most widely-read statements of the racial dangers facing "the white world". Stoddard warned that Australia might disappear altogether beneath the rising tide of colour.
The notion that 'Asia' presented special threats and, less commonly, special promise for Australia has quite a history. Over the last century, there have been any number of warnings that Australia would need to take more notice of events in Asia. Often enough, these warnings were accompanied by disapproving assessments of the Australian people, who were often criticised for their blindness to Asia. They were commonly depicted as either a compulsively shallow people, addicted to the idle pleasures of life and quite incapable of seeing the extent to which events in Asia would shape their future. Or they were knotty bigots. Either way, coming to terms with Asia was presented as Australia's Big Test, perhaps the biggest of them all. And because it is so often represented as the BT marking the exam paper has generated some bitter divisions.
Stephen FitzGerald's Is Australia an Asian Country? is the latest contribution to the great debate. He brings impressive credentials to his subject. He was appointed by the Whitlam government as Australia's first Ambassador to the People's Republic of China. He has chaired Commonwealth committees on Asian Studies and immigration. Ten years ago, his immigration report warned of the widespread community distrust of multiculturalism. He runs a consultancy for Australian businesses in Asia. He is co-chair of a Joint Policy Committee for economic co-operation between the Northern Territory and Indonesian governments and is the Australian representative to the Commission for a New Asia, based in Kuala Lumpur. Following a string of senior academic appointments, FitzGerald now heads the Asia-Australia Institute at the University of New South Wales. Presumably he is the sort of person Les Murray had in mind when he wrote: "our mandarins now, in one more evasion/of love and themselves, declare us Asian." (Subhuman Redneck Poems). FitzGerald is the mandarin's mandarin.
His book, FitzGerald writes, "is an argument about Australia's future". And so it is, but FitzGerald's subject is not so much the ordinary Australian, an inscrutable figure if ever there was one, but Australian elites: government, business, academe and the media. For FitzGerald, the mandarins are nowhere near informed enough about Asia. Thirty years ago Donald Horne wrote an unflattering report of Australian elites in The Lucky Country, a publishing landmark that FitzGerald willingly acknowledges. How do the elites perform on the knowledge of Asia test? Citing language proficiency as one measure, FitzGerald finds that we have one member of federal parliament who is proficient in an Asian language. The business community is not much better placed. Though academe and the media display higher levels of Asia-literacy, neither, in FitzGerald's view, use their Asian expertise very well. He sees little evidence among University Vice Chancellors of Asia literacy, although there are numerous signs of aggressive manoeuvring for the big dollars that overseas students have come to represent.
There was another big test. In March 1996 Bangkok hosted the ASEM meeting, at which ASEAN and the European Union met for the first time to discuss economic policies and political agendas. Australia was not represented on either side of this divide: it was neither Europe nor Asia. How Australia came to miss the ASEM boat and the implications that might follow our continuing exclusion from Asia provide the moral for FitzGerald's story. He turns on its head the old view, which still has its supporters, that Asia would destroy Australian distinctiveness and submerge our identity, arguing instead that failure to intellectualise our relationship with the region and find our place in Asia will turn Australia into a vulnerable remnant of Europe, a mere colony of Asia, in which democratic freedoms and distinctive values will prove difficult to maintain. In the course of his argument, FitzGerald spells out what he means by Asia and argues that the fascination with APEC and talk of an Asia-Pacific future are attempts to evade the commitment to Asia rather than come to terms with the region. He sees APEC as a half-way house, part of the old "white club", rather than the new Asia.
While FitzGerald is well aware of the economic case for engagement with Asia and wants an economically successful Australia, he sees the constant process of turning Asia into dollar signs as both ugly and short sighted. We veer from market to market and from scheme to scheme, valorising economic relationships, all too often failing to recognise the central part that cultural relations and cultural knowledge play in dealings with Asia. And behind it all FitzGerald often discerns a cynicism about Asia, a refusal to see or understand the cultural plenitude that lies before us. To argue, as FitzGerald does, that we need to start thinking about where we would like Australia to be placed in the 2020s suggests a depth of intellectual commitment and long-term planning that is not much in evidence. Our problem with Asia, he insists, is primarily a cultural failure, not least because the language we use to describe our Asian connections is so often economically justified. We can see no other reason for being there. Even so, FitzGerald remains cautiously optimistic about Australia's prospects in Asia. Then again, it is probably about a year since the book went to press. It has been a big year for going backwards.