Where is Asia in ‘Fortress Australia’?

Where is Asia in ‘Fortress Australia’?

For Australia’s neighbours in the Indo-Pacific region the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal announced late September signalled a firm pivot toward traditional Western allies. The strengthening of a narrative that positions China as a threat to Australia’s security is also bound to further alienate the inflow of Chinese students to Australian Universities. As Australia closes in on two full years of closed borders and rolling lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, inflows of students and new migrants into the country have already reduced to a trickle. The effects of isolation from the rest of the world are thus beginning to make themselves apparent in a worrying pivot towards parochial ideas about Australia’s place in the world. 

While the recent 2+2 ministerial dialogues with South Korea, Indonesia, and India signal an effort to maintain and expand close trade and strategic security relationships with some of Australia’s key partners in Asia, China relations are increasingly fraught. China has cut back on trade and other ties with Australia over the past two years, and Australia for its part is also increasingly looking inwards, evident in the education sector where support for Asia-related expertise appears to be in decline. Australia is therefore in many ways following the trends witnessed in Europe and the US where Asian Studies and expertise remain marginalised. Given Australia’s geopolitical location, security and trade interests, the isolationist notion of “Fortress Australia” is worrying. The pivot towards traditional allies evidenced by AUKUS, and assumptions of Australia as a nation insulated from Asian influence have profound implications for Australia’s national identity and place in the world.

What does this mean for Asia education in Australia? As public discourses about Asia’s importance to Australia continue to represent the Indo-Pacific region as simultaneously both a threat and an opportunity to various national interests, what remains constant is how Asia is always positioned as external to Australia. For that reason, when material benefits of Asia engagement become less apparent, the Australian government is quick to revert to a reactionary view of Asia as volatile and threatening.

The current hollowing out of Asian Studies programs in Australian universities and lacklustre language enrolments in high schools across the country are both evidence of the fact that Asia expertise is also considered as incidental – rather than central –  to Australian national priorities. Even when the Australian government has advocated for better relations with Asia, this has often been with one eye on the economic benefits of doing so. This is evident in Australian school curricula where “Asia literacy“, an initiative aimed at preparing Australian students to take full economic advantage of the so-called Asian century, seems to have become the most desirable form of Asia education despite its obvious shortcomings. The weakness of the Asia literacy concept is, however, that it draws on Australia’s consistent positioning of Asia as an entity that exists outside of Australia, waiting to be explored and “discovered” by those with the linguistic skills to do so. This inability to see Australia as a country that is part of the Asian region perpetuates a view that when Australia is closed, the need to engage with Asia disappears. It also means that Australia is seen to lack one of the key values many of our Asian neighbours appreciate most: loyalty in cultivating long term reciprocal relations.

One of the key challenges facing Asia education in Australia is the paradox that experts in the area have been forced to “sell” Asia education to parents and policy makers as a lucrative “product” for enhancing graduate employability. The Asia literacy concept thus draws on a cold logic of material returns, and is essentially a concept that was coined to convince policymakers, school and University administrators as well as parents that learning about Asia or Asian languages was important to both students’ and Australia’s own future in the region. Yet most students who engage in Asian Studies do so because of genuine interest in Asian cultures, which subsequently sparks motivation for further learning in addition to broadening their job opportunities. Moreover, many Australian young people see much of Asia as ‘cool’ because they have been enthusiastically consuming Korean or Japanese popular culture since childhood. One only has to look to the colossal success of Netflix’s Squid Game to see a reminder of how eagerly Australians consume Asian pop culture. Such pop culture products are increasingly not seen as exotic to Australian youth, and instead part of their childhood cultural space, or reflective of experiences they themselves have had. Tellingly, Australian young people are more willing and keen to engage with Asia beyond material considerations, and are less interested in the impacts of Asia expertise on their resumes. What this suggests is that there is significant dissonance between what motivates students to learn about Asia, and that Asian Studies departments and school educators are having to “sell” the need to engage with Asia to their managers, who often have very limited understanding of Asia and its significance themselves. We argue that it is this generational gap that is proving a significant challenge, as the gate keepers of budgetary decisions fail to recognise that Australia’s youth see Asia very differently to previous generations.

A recent still unpublished preliminary study at UWA of 14 young University students showed that rather than seeing Australia’s relationship with Asia as bound by the paradigm of opportunities and threats, young adults are keen to challenge the government’s presentation of Asia as separate from Australia. This was evident in focus group participants’ comments in which they were critical of the way Asia is often homogenised, “othered”, and erroneously perceived as poverty stricken in school teaching materials. There was also a perception among participants that “Asia literacy” is a type of government-led fear-mongering that is only being undertaken because Australia feels threatened by Asia’s increasing importance in world affairs. Encouragingly, instead of accepting government narratives about Asia, participants themselves displayed a type of “cosmopolitan nationalism” that incorporates Asia as part of a “multicultural” and “diverse” Australia.

It is increasingly apparent that while politicians and decision makers are still tied to a dated binary concept of threats and opportunities, young Australians are fast outgrowing it. They are less concerned with acquiring “Asia-skills” and are motivated by genuine curiosity and respect for Asian societies and cultures, which are increasingly based on perceptions of similarity rather than “Otherness.” It is clear from discussions in university classrooms that familiarity with Asian popular culture and pre-pandemic travel trends means that young Australians do not consider Asia to be a foreign concept. Instead, consuming Asian culture or being Asian is a key part of being Australian. Despite the pandemic-era attractiveness of the “tyranny of distance”, young Australians have considerably more cosmopolitan outlooks towards Asia, either because they themselves have Asian heritage, or because they actively want to seek out ways to engage with Asia as Australians. This provides an opportunity for decision makers to capitalise on this intrinsic motivation and invest in a carefully designed Asia curriculum that includes both Asian Studies and language education.

Mobilising the increased appetite for Asian engagement among young Australians is central to Australia’s future as an Indo-Pacific nation. Australian students must be provided with critical ways of examining Australia’s past, present, and future relationships with Asia and not simply offered sporadic opportunities to learn Asian languages in primary schools or Universities. While the concept of “Asia literacy” has in the past contributed to the important task of exposing a broad range of Australians to Asia, we are in desperate need of a more sophisticated way to discuss an increasingly complex relationship with the region. Thankfully there is no need to re-invent Asia education. Asian Studies, which provides a way of teaching students critically about Asian politics, societies, and cultures, must become central in discussions of Australian school and University curricula. Instead of viewing Asia as a market for Australia to exploit, Asian Studies education is transformative in challenging students to comprehend alternative and equally valid ways of seeing the world. In turn, this will allow young Australians to cultivate a sense of belonging in the wider Indo-Pacific region. This mindset should be viewed as a crucial part of understanding what it means to be Australian and a global citizen. This transformational aspect of Asian Studies education also explains why it is pointless to insist on language education without a deep understanding of the country where the language is spoken. In fact, Asia education that imagines Asian Studies as pure language education is a fallacy because it imagines Asian languages as a skill that can be learned in vacuum and without socio-historical context. In effect, this mindset also continues to treat Asian language learning as external to the learner and fails to achieve a key objective of ACARA’s Asia Literacy curriculum: to “make it possible to engage actively and effectively with people of the Asian region”. Linguistic fluency and cross-cultural communication require not just knowledge about a place, but a transformation of the learner’s way of seeing the world.

When fortress Australia eventually lowers its drawbridge, Australians will once again travel in droves to countries in Asia. In addition, Asian immigration to Australia will continue to rise and the role of Asian nations in global affairs will grow. The government must now realise that the time for becoming merely ‘literate’ in an Asia that is external to Australia has passed. Asian Studies education will be crucial in preparing Australians for the reality of living in an increasingly diverse, rich, vibrant, and “Asian” Australia.

Acknowledgements/notes: This work was supported by the Core University Program for Korean Studies through the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Korea and Korean Studies Promotion Service of the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2020-OLU-20200039).

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