Half a world away from US imperial decline and European economic decay, the vista that stretches from the offices of Bengaluru’s nimble start-ups to Shenzhen’s hulking manufacturers is dazzling. Just to our north sits this century’s unmistakable focal point of global economic power: with Asia’s GDP predicted to exceed the combined GDP of Europe and the US by 2030, the continent is on track to have more than half of the world’s middle-class consumers by the end of this decade.
Not only is Asia rising at a dizzying rate, it is propelling Australia towards prosperity. The frenetic pace of construction in China’s ballooning megacities supercharged the once-in-a-lifetime mining boom that kept us out of recession during the worst years of the global financial crisis. With Asian countries accounting for seven out of Australia’s top ten trading partners in 2010–11, our economic tryst with Asia cannot be reduced to the story of a resurgent Middle Kingdom. From our rapidly expanding trade relationship with India to our longstanding economic ties with Japan, we are following the money as it moves from the North Atlantic to Asia.
As this weekend’s release of the government’s White Paper makes clear, the dawn of the Asian Century should be cause for unabashed Australian optimism. Instead, deep-seated insecurities are welling up. Politicians, businesspeople and academics are all raising the spectre of European Australia’s irrelevance in an Asian Century. The narrative is as simple as it is unimaginative: as a lonely outpost of the Anglosphere in Asia, we need to consciously embrace Asia or be left on the wrong side of history.
A recent editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald gave voice to these Asian Century insecurities. It warned that without a concerted effort to invest in Asia-relevant capabilities, Australia will not be able to capitalise on the rise of Asia’s newly cashed-up middle classes. The editorial opined that to sell more than iron ore and coal to Asia, Australians need to understand the continent’s cultures and languages.
This editorial was just the latest crest in a wave of self-doubting Asia-literacy alarm. Experts and commentators have pushed for billions of dollars of spending on Asian studies in schools to prepare us to navigate political and economic relations with the world’s new economic masters. Underlying these feverish calls for huge government outlay is the idea that success in the Asian Century depends on Australia breaking free of its Anglo-Celtic mindset.
By narrowly focusing on the supposed tension between Australia’s European history and Asian geography, the story of European Australia’s irrelevance in the Asian Century ignores the realities of modern multicultural Australia. Although Australia’s cultural reference points were once almost exclusively Anglo-Celtic, relegating Asian languages to the distant margins, Asian cultures and languages are now undeniably Australian. Breakneck economic growth in Asia does not demand a nation-building response because good fortune has made us Asian by nature.
According to the 2011 Census, approximately 2.2 million people in this country speak Asian languages at home, which equates to around ten per cent of the population. Insofar as speaking a language at home is a relatively good proxy for having a familial connection of some kind with the country from which the language comes, this number also points to a large pool of Asian cultural literacy. It is therefore no surprise that the extent of Australia’s Asia-literacy becomes obvious as soon as one steps onto the streets of any of our country’s capitals.
This Asia-literacy is not just a minority asset; Asian cultural literacy is being progressively mainstreamed. In Australia’s healthy multicultural society, with its high levels of interaction between cultures, Asian cultural literacy is being spread by osmosis. Analysis of census data shows spouses were of different ancestries in 30 per cent of all couples, while the rate of marriage between Australians of different backgrounds has been increasing with each successive generation. Moreover, recent research suggests we are less likely to be living in segregated neighbourhoods than our British, Canadian, and in particular, US counterparts.
To be sure, organic cultural literacy acquisition might be slow and incomplete. Living alongside or even marrying someone from a different cultural group may only lead to a superficial understanding of another culture, and even that might be years in the making. Despite its limitations, the natural spread of Asian cultural literacy, combined with the millions of Australians who have direct familial connections with Asia, should leave us in no doubt that Asian cultures are authentically Australian.
In a very real sense, Australia is already Asian. And as our economic bonds with the region strengthen, we are becoming even more so. Seven of the top ten source countries in Australia’s 2011–12 immigration program were in Asia: China, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Since the last vestiges of the White Australia Policy were dismantled in the 1970s, immigration has made Australia one of the world’s most successful multicultural experiments. Now it is also equipping us with a rich understanding of the languages and cultures of Asia’s sprawling industrial centres and dynamic commercial hubs.
Some will likely object that an Asian Australia is not their Australia. They might argue that the ‘real’ Australia is exclusively English-speaking and culturally Anglo-Celtic. To put the point mildly, this conception of Australia is neither morally justifiable nor demographically accurate. Any genuine liberal democracy will be multicultural: a commitment to liberal rights and freedoms is counterfeit unless it comes with a commitment to cultural diversity.
Beyond a corruption of liberalism, the idea of a monolinguistic and monocultural Australia is only plausible if we deny
who we are. Australia is Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese just as it is Irish, English and Italian. Multiculturalism is not a collective aspiration; it is not a policy that can be terminated. It is unapologetically an Australian reality.
The significance of the power shift from the North Atlantic to Asia can barely be overstated. As profound as this geopolitical change might be, it would be misleadingly pessimistic to decide whether we are adequately prepared for the Asian Century without taking stock of Australia’s multicultural reality. Indeed, glossing over our diversity would leave us blind to one of Australia’s natural strengths: as a country that is in a very real sense already Asian, this coming century is ours.
Benjamin Herscovitch is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies and author of the recent publication Australia’s Asia Literacy Non-Problem.