By Robert Milliken
THE last time Australians were so shocked by the rising might of Asia was almost 70 years ago. That's when Japan bombed the country's northern ports and sent midget submarines into Sydney Harbour to attack American warships (unsuccessfully). Michael Wesley, one of Australia's foremost foreign-policy thinkers, reckons it is time Australians came to terms with another shock from Asia. This time, thankfully, it should be primarily psychological. Australia, he says, has become a country of "insular internationalists": rich and well-travelled but complacent and switched-off about the many ways in which the rising giants of China and India are changing their region. "An inversion of our world has happened without us noticing," Mr Wesley says. In this inverted world, many of Australia's old certainties are up for grabs, including the alliance with America that was born from that earlier Asian shock.
Mr Wesley is the executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, a think-tank in Sydney. His new book, "There Goes the Neighbourhood", has been causing some shockwaves itself. The insular internationalists it finds most worrisome are Australia's current crop of political leaders. Julia Gillard openly professed little interest in foreign policy on her first overseas trip as prime minister last year. The only recent overseas trip of note by Tony Abbott, the opposition leader, was to Nauru—and that was just to score political points against Ms Gillard over the corrosive issue of asylum-seekers arriving by boat. Australians, says Mr Wesley, would never tolerate leaders who treated the economy or education with such disregard. Yet their lack of vision about the world has done them no harm at the polls.
Your correspondent interviewed Mr Wesley about his book earlier this week before an audience at Gleebooks, an author-friendly bookshop in inner-Sydney. Thanks to a looming, foreign menace from South America, Mr Wesley almost missed his own event. He had flown that morning to Canberra to brief the diplomatic corps on "There Goes the Neighbourhood". No sooner had he landed, than a drifting cloud of ash from a volcano in Chile closed down airports across south-east Australia. Mr Wesley prevailed among the crush of stranded travellers queuing for hire-cars and drove back to Sydney just in time.
Policy wonks have been warning Australians to prepare for a rising Asia for at least 40 years. Yet Mr Wesley believes Australia is entering a "strange new world" for which it is nowhere near prepared. He sees the future centred not so much on the Asia-Pacific region, but on an "Indo-Pacific highway" that will bring the dynamism of the world economy and the pivot of world affairs inexorably closer to Australia's northern coastline.
Mr Wesley happens to agree with our recent analysis to the effect that Australia's old curse, the "tyranny of distance", has been turned on its head. But now come some "brutal truths". Australians see their prosperity linked to Asia's. They have yet to realise some of the complications. China, after all, has chosen not to contest America's role in the region—not too vigorously, not yet. Their natural rivalry pits Australia's biggest trading partner for the foreseeable future against its traditional ally. Mr Wesley's conclusion: Australia will actually get less of America's attention, and the alliance will become less important to Washington, as it faces a rising China "determined to push it back towards its own side of the Pacific".
The psychological shift Mr Wesley calls for may be starting already, under the radar. Fears of a "yellow peril" and invasion from the north have long been embedded in the Australian psyche. The economic rise of the "teeming billions" to Australia's north, says Mr Wesley, has come at just the time when mainstream Australia has stopped fearing that eventuality. The sense of menace however has not gone entirely. Mr Wesley sees it mutating eerily into the perception of a "green peril": Muslims arriving by boat. As for China: "After nearly two centuries of fearing the 'yellow peril', there are few Western societies that regard a wealthy and powerful China with more optimism and less dread than Australians."
Australians may not be so eager to hear Mr Wesley's forebodings about America. But Australia's new infatuation with China, if that's what it is, caused a similar unease among some American participants at a recent conference in Sydney. The United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney played host to "The 9/11 decade: How everything changed", to compare American and Australian perspectives on the world since the terrorist attacks on America, ten years ago.
Some American speakers appeared to chide Australia for accepting too readily the idea that American power is in decline while China's is on the rise. Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard University, and a former American under-secretary of state, said "I have been surprised to see the divergence of thinking between Australia and the U.S. on the question, 'Can we live with a militarised China?' There is a big gulf between Australians and Americans on that issue."
Mr Burns's answer was his "fervent wish" that America would remain the dominant military power in the Asia-Pacific region, in concert with allies such as Australia, Japan and South Korea, for the rest of the 21st-century. This in turn brought a sharp retort from Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister, and former head of the International Crisis Group: "Isn't the truth of the matter that the top-dog moment has passed, or will in the next 50 years, and that there is a shared world ahead?"
Mr Wesley is right. Australia's psychological readjustment to the changing dynamics of its top trading partner and its chief strategic ally has only just begun.