Towards an Asian future

It is hard to think of a country pulled in as many different directions as Australia.

Australia has long struggled with its competing allegiances

There is the historical, sentimental and constitutional attachment to Britain. There is the defence and strategic alliance with America. Then there is the commercial rapport with China, which has recently overtaken Japan as the country's major trading partner.

And we haven't even mentioned New Zealand, Australia's second largest source of immigrants and its long-time Anzac soul-mate.

As part of the Power of Asia season on the BBC, we've been asking where the country's future lies.

From an economic perspective, the answer, obviously, is Asia. For even if China's growth slows, India, Vietnam, Japan and Indonesia will provide an expanding market for Australia's resources, like iron ore, coal and natural gas. The rise of Asia helps explain why average incomes here have doubled over the past two decades and why the country has managed to avoid recession during that entire period.

No wonder then that Colin Barnett, the premier of resource-rich Western Australia, says he spends more time in China than in Canberra.

Kevin Rudd advocated an Asian community during his time in office

No wonder that former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (who speaks Mandarin) tried to institutionalise Australia's diplomatic influence in the region through the creation of an Asia-Pacific modelled on the EU.

If you look at the demographics of Australia, most of the population still has British or Irish ancestry. But it is becoming increasing Asian - almost 10% of the Australian population is now of Asian descent, and the number of Chinese-born Australians has increased six-fold over the past two decades. This process that will no doubt accelerate as the Indo-Pacific century unfolds.

The former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating devoted more energy than any of his predecessors to reorientate his country towards Asia. He once said that if Australia could not succeed in Asia, it could not succeed anywhere. Since then, in a narrow commercial sense, it has done rather nicely.

But how does Australia feel about its increasingly Asian future? Uneasy is one answer. Indifferent is another.

One indicator is the take-up of Asian languages in Australian schools, which was a central part of Paul Keating's push to make his country more Asia-literate. While Japanese remains the most taught language in Australian schools, and Mandarin Chinese has become more popular, the teaching of other Asian languages is in decline.

Michael Wesley, of foreign policy think-tank the Lowy Institute, has just written an excellent book called There Goes the Neighbourhood: Australia and the Rise of Asia. Its basic argument is that Australia has become a lot more insular at a time when it should be projecting its pan-Asian influence.

In an argument which offers an up-to-date take on Donald Horne's The Lucky Country, Mr Wesley suggests that much of this is borne of national complacency.

He writes: "We've been incredibly successful without really even trying to understand the region. And the very logical conclusion that people can draw from that is that we really don't have to try that hard to succeed in Asia. But I think that's a very mistaken view to have."

Michael Wesley has some fascinating insights into how Australians approach, say, travel in Asia compared with travel in Europe and America. The tendency in Asia, in places like Bali and Thailand, is to spend a week or so luxuriating on a beach, without devoting much time to finding out about the local cultures (here, I plead guilty). Travel in Europe, on the other hand, is a much more educational and richer experience.

That is symptomatic, he suggests, of a wider malaise. "We've never really made the emotional or the cultural leap [away from] placing Europe and America at the centre of our consciousness. That's what makes it hard for those advocating greater cultural awareness."

Often this kind of debate presents Australians with a false choice: that they somehow have to choose between their history, their security and their prosperity. Australia's great post-war success, it could be argued, has been the extent to which it has balanced its relations with Britain, America and most recently Japan, China and other Asian neighbours.

But should Asia become a much bigger part of that mix? Or is that process inexorable?