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The Asian side of the world

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Jean-François Sabouret

Part one. Regional dynamics and globalisation

Australia and its region

Xavier Pons

Texte intégral

1July 2010

2According to the UN Security Council’s classification, Australia is part of the “western Europe and other” regional group. This surrealistic view underlines the contradiction between the country’s historical heritage, in which the links between the former British colony and Europe predominate, and its geographical context, which is that of the Asia-Pacific region.

3This contradiction has made Australia’s insertion into the region problematic; it was long seen as a foreign body, a bastion of Western imperialism, and even as a symbol of a now defunct colonial era. Prime Minister John Howard’s claim in 1999 that Australia was the US’ ‘deputy sheriff’ in this part of the world did not help to clear up any misunderstandings on the matter. Australia, whose population used to be 98% British, and where people of Western descent still predominate, has found it very difficult to give up the notion that it was essentially a white nation; a fragment of Europe unaccountably located on the fringes of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Moreover, recently, a plan to reform the school curriculum was criticised for placing too much importance on the Aboriginal culture and for not mentioning the Magna Carta, an emblem of the English culture.

4Amongst the Australian colonists, this desperate clinging on to a British identity originated from a sense of worrying particularity that the continent had instilled in them. In addition to the differences in its fauna, flora and landscapes, Australia was inconveniently located at the opposite end of Europe, not far from the shores of Asia, an environment that was not only strange, but dangerous for the handful of Europeans that were exiled there. For Australians, Asia was the embodiment of the yellow peril. In the middle of the 19th century, at the time of the gold rush, the arrival of tens of thousands of Chinese gold diggers resulted in a large outcry. All kinds of arguments were put forward to justify any hostile behaviour towards them including their immorality, taste for opium, gambling habits, etc. However, it was their racial difference that the colonists objected to. The colonists constructed an ideological edifice, a mixture of British patriotism and Darwinian ideas proclaiming that Australia was a continent reserved for the white race, and one that had to be thoroughly protected from any Asian contamination.

5The difficulties encountered by the colonies in their attempts to limit or prohibit Chinese immigration were one of the major incentives for them to unite in 1901 and this led to the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia, a true Australian nation. One of the first measures adopted by the Federal Parliament was the ‘Immigration Restriction Act’, which inaugurated the infamous ‘White Australia Policy’ and made it impossible in practice for coloured people to gain access into the country. The policy was to remain in force until the early 1970s.

6The fear of a Japanese attack as well as a peaceful Chinese invasion achieved through immigration, which had already occurred in the 1940s, caused a long lasting trauma to the country.

7This historical background must be kept in mind if one is to understand the ongoing reticence, which today is also behind the rejection of the handful of asylum seekers arriving from Iraq, Sri Lanka or Afghanistan.

8With time, Australia has gradually drifted away from its former motherland Britain, even though constitutional links and sentimental ones remain (for example the Queen of England is also the Queen of Australia). It would no longer occur to Australians to say ‘home’ as they used to do when referring to England. On a strategic and economic level, Britain has lost the decisive power it used to have over its former colony. Joining the European Union in 1973 put an end to the privileged trade relations, which made it an important market for Australian exports. Australia had to find new customers, and turned to Asia. As a result, the country’s prosperity now depends largely on Asian countries. Its exports are mainly to Japan, China, Korea and India, whilst its imports are mostly sourced from China, Japan, Singapore and the US, as the single exception in the West.

9From a strategic point of view, Britain has long lost its superpower status and as a result, it has also lost its role also as Australia’s official protector. Australia had to turn to the US, which was able to guarantee its security. After John Curtin’s rather desperate plea for help in December 1941, the ANZUS Treaty was drawn up in 1951, a pact of mutual assistance between the US, Australia and New Zealand. In reality, it offers few guarantees to America’s partners, but for Australia, the treaty holds a great deal of importance and the country feels protected.

10One might be forgiven for thinking that where Australia is concerned, everything is going well ‘in the best of all possible worlds’ for it to conduct profitable trade with Asia and its security is guaranteed by the world’s most powerful nation. Who could ask for more? Unfortunately things are not quite that simple, and the traditional conflicts between the historical and cultural tropism, driving the country towards the West and the economical tropism pulling the country towards Asia, are still present, albeit under a different form. More precisely, Australia is aware that in a number of ways, its fate hangs on the potential misunderstandings and conflicts between Chinese-American relations.

11There have been long-standing disagreements between the two countries on issues such as human rights amongst others. Thus, the US blames China for the chronic undervaluation of its currency, the yuan, which favours Chinese exports, but is detrimental to US economic interests. If America decided to retaliate, Australia would find itself in an awkward position; even without taking part in the battle of strength, Australia would need to take sides and therefore would end up offending one of the two. Even worse, there would be a surge of tensions over Taiwan, as China looks upon Taiwan as part of its national territory and is intent on bringing it back within its grip and by force if necessary. During the Cold War, Taiwan was seen as a democratic bulwark against the Communist tide, and the US committed itself to protecting Taiwan’s integrity. If for some reason, China resorted to force in order to regain Taiwan, the US would be placed in a delicate situation, that of having to decide whether to keep its word and thus enter into conflict with China, whose weight on the international stage continues to grow, and which might land it into hot water, or renege on its commitment, and thereby lose much credibility. In the case of the former, Australia would have to take sides, which would be destructive, whilst in the latter case, it would lead Australia to inevitably question whether there is any real substance behind America’s guarantee of security.

12Furthermore, Australia is facing its own problems with both the US and China, even if the former is less obvious than the latter. Kevin Rudd has been dragging his feet over sending more troops to Afghanistan on President Obama’s requests, whilst US protectionism over agricultural matters has been irritating Australian producers. With regards to China, Australia is not always sure how to act.

13China’s large purchases of iron ore coal and natural gas have allowed Australia to avoid the recession although Australia does not wish to see Chinese companies acquire too large a share of its mining companies and thus obtain direct access to the country’s mineral resources, hence the blocking of Chinalco’s bid to acquire 18% of Rio Tinto. The resulting Chinese discontent may have had something to do with the arrests and condemnations by Chinese authorities of several Rio Tinto employees on charges of corruption and industrial spying. One of those employees, Stern Hu, an Australian citizen of Chinese origin, was sentenced to ten years in prison following a private trial, the fairness of which was questioned by many Australians.

14There have also been many political disagreements, illustrated by the visits of ‘unfavourable personalities’ (through the eyes of the Chinese) to Australia such as the Dalai Lama or the Uighur leader, Rebiya Kadeer, in spite of Beijing’s dire warnings. These visits have been minor, but not insignificant annoyances to China.

15China and Australia both profit from their current relations, and it is in neither party’s interest to allow those relations to deteriorate. For this to happen, it would take a truly seismic upheaval in the international environment, such as an armed conflict between Beijing and Taipei, which seems unlikely for the time being.

16In comparison with the links between Australia and the US and China, the relations between France and Australia appear to be much less significant. Even though there are no fewer than 33 bilateral treaties between the two countries – ranging from maritime assistance (1879) to the double income tax (2006) – France does not feature amongst Australia’s top ten trade partners. At least it cannot be said that relations are bad, as was the case in 1985 after the sinking of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in Auckland, or in 1988 after the tragic events of the Ouvea cave or that of 1995 after France resumed nuclear testing in the Pacific under President Chirac’s orders. These three political blunders stimulated a violent anti-French response, which fortunately has been long forgotten. Cooperation between the two countries is amicable, as exemplified by the Australian donations to the Quai Branly Museum, the exhumation and identification of Australian soldiers who died in Fromelles during World War I, or by the extension of the working holiday programme to France, which enables young people to finance their holidays in Australia by taking on small jobs. A regret, however, is that Canberra does not give stronger support to French universities regarding Australian studies as Ottawa does in respect of Canadian studies, thus ensuring their success.

17Although France plays a positive role in the way in which Australians imagine France to be including the way of life, gastronomy and cultural heritage, it is nevertheless a minor actor, and Australians are aware that their future will be played out on a different stage, that of the Asia-Pacific region.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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