ALLAN PATIENCE. From America into Asia

Dec 30, 2016

As Australia necessarily rethinks its alliance with the United States, it must simultaneously educate itself into Asia. There is just no other way.  

Until recently the very idea of rethinking the ANZUS alliance was anathema in Australia. For six decades the alliance has been seen as a rock on which this country’s security policies have been founded. Most Australians have naively believed that if the country comes under threat the United States is very willing and more than able to come to its aid. This dependency on America has reinforced a persistent belief in Australia that the country is an integral part of what Tony Abbott likes to refer to as the “Anglosphere” – a mythical coterie of Anglophone states allegedly holding great traditions and high values in common.

For a long time belief in the Anglosphere has been culturally entrenched in Australia, resulting in a perilous denial of the realities of the country’s geopolitical location in Asia. The prevailing view is that we do not belong in Asia. From the Gold Rushes to contemporary responses to asylum seekers, Australians have tried to keep Asia and Asians at arms length. Xenophobia (or more specifically, Asia-phobia) hangs heavily in the Australian air. The White Australia policy, our fight against Japan’s imperial forces during the Pacific War, our clinging to America during the Cold War, our involvements in the Korean and Vietnam wars, the reckless policy of forward defence, the claim that we are America’s “deputy sheriff” in the region, John Howard’s assertion of our right to preemptively strike at potential threats located within our neighbouring states – these all point to our timorous desire to avoid all things Asian while hovering nervously under Uncle Sam’s coat-tails.

However, the fact is that complacency about the American alliance is no longer tenable. The America that signed the ANZUS treaty with Australia in 1951 has undergone a profound transformation. Today its internal politics are increasingly populist, surly, paranoid and unstable. Its in-coming president is advocating what looks terribly like an isolationist foreign policy while demanding that the USA’s allies contribute more to their own security. Moreover, his posturing towards China is presenting Australia with a major dilemma: can we continue acknowledging China as our number one trading partner if the United States decides to go to war over Taiwan, or in the South China Seas (or both). And on issues like the Trans Pacific Partnership, free trade agreements, nuclear non-proliferation, and climate change President-elect Trump is notoriously flakey and unpredictable.

It is therefore ironic that a combination of the ANZUS alliance and the growth of the Asia Pacific regional economy have been catalysts for drawing Australia into its region, often kicking and screaming in protest. In particular the alliance with the United States has made us focus on our regional location, obliging us to follow America into conflicts that have had little to do with our national interest. Even today we are dealing with consequences (some good, most problematic) of our historical involvement in America’s wars in Korea and Vietnam, as well as the USA’s Cold War strategies in Asia.

At the same time much of Australia’s post-war economic growth has been magnificently fuelled first by Japan and more recently by China. Through security arrangements like the ASEAN Regional Forum and APEC, as well as membership of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, we are becoming increasingly enmeshed in Asia. It is vital that we all fully understand how Australia’s security and prosperity are being fundamentally shaped by what is happening in our region. Nostalgia for a mythical (and ultimately racist) Anglosphere is therefore very hazardous: it is time for Australia to become a significant, independent and confident member of its region. But the problem is that we remain largely ignorant of the region into which we are being inexorably drawn. To remain in such ignorance will lead us into a disastrous future.

The looming challenge of a Trump presidency means that Australia simply cannot afford to be so pitifully reliant on the United States. It has to address its own security on its own terms. This doesn’t mean ruling out close friendship with the USA, but it does mean rethinking ANZUS – moving from America into Asia.

Rethinking ANZUS will require a simultaneous rethinking of our education systems. The best way to a secure effective engagement with Asia is through what we teach in our schools and universities. Australia needs to radically overhaul school and university curricula to nurture young Australians into deep understandings of the languages, histories, economies, cultures and politics of the countries surrounding them and that loom large in their future. We need to cultivate an Asian awareness in this country second to none in the world, to enable our people to communicate intelligently and insightfully, to be unthreatened by cultural differences, to be able to negotiate regional cooperation agreements, and to conduct business transparently and ethically.

There has been too much talk about this urgent need to educate the country into Asia, but too little action from governments, schools and higher education institutions. Asian studies in this country remain at the pedagogical margins, isolated in academic ghettos. We need an educational revolution to overcome the intellectual and political inertia that is impeding the development of Asia literacy and Asia consciousness in this country.

It is time to emulate something like Victoria’s Nossal High School, a selective secondary school associated with Monash University that has an interest in nurturing scientific curiosity among its students. Similar selective schools with specialist curricula focusing on Asia and Australia’s relations with its Asian neighbours are now needed in each state to pave the way as models for educating Australians about how to be in charge of their regional future.

As Australia necessarily rethinks its alliance with the United States, it must simultaneously educate itself into Asia. There is just no other way.

Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne.

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