One almost begins to believe that there is no major problem that the “down under” continental country of Australia won’t be able to work out.
That’s what you feel after nearly a week of watching various Aussies in action here on the West Coast. The occasion for this bit of breathless admiration arose from the panoply of programs associated with the recent promotional marathon that the government and the country’s business community launched for West Coast Americans.
All those parties, academic seminars and business-climate briefings were impressive. But make no mistake about their overall goal: It’s to make sure that we don’t forget that they exist.
Australia, you see, has a peculiar problem. It’s between two worlds: the world of Asia and the world of the West. Globalization is probably bringing them close together, but the cementing is not exactly occurring overnight.
Australia needs to be part of Asia because that’s where it is geographically, yet its populace is less Asian than any other place in the region (except, of course, nearby New Zealand). But it needs to be part of the West, because of its white-populace heritage, and because of its desire to “punch about its weight.”
That is to say, Australia may be the only country that’s a continent unto itself; but its population still isn’t much more than 20 million , and it’s less than Malaysia’s.
For the past week, Australia proudly paraded across much of the West Coast an amazing assortment of Aussies. Most of the cute koalas stayed home (fact is, Aussies hate to be thought of as some sort of white-man’s freak show) but a number of leading politicians, business tycoons and show-business celebrities make the scene last week.
Perhaps the most intriguing figure was a prominent Australian politician named Peter Costello. He is quite tall, quite well-spoken and he supports the Bush administration and its Iraq war and war on terror with no major publicly expressed reservations.
This is hardly a surprise: Aussies, for better or worse, have stood beside we Americans through all sorts of tight spots, whether in Korea, Vietnam or now Iraq. The Australians’ concern is this: We don’t want to be all alone in this slab of the globe that looks to be more and more China’s neighborhood. China may not yet be a bully, but it could possibly be one in the making.
So, the Australians cleverly do what anyone would do in their situation. They play both sides of the geopolitical street. They happily do deals with Beijing, as do our own businesspeople, and avoid intruding or commenting publicly on embarrassing internal Chinese issues, such as media closure and domestic riots.
At the same time, they side with us on many major geopolitical issues, and pay homage to the United States by staging campaigns such as the weeklong “G’Day, L.A.” Rumor has it that they may try to organize something similar in New York City next year.
Australia has its problems like everyone else. The recent race riots, widely reported in the world media, did nothing to reduce the suspicion in some parts of Asia that under the blanket of Australian civility exists a racist mess. That is not fair.
What’s more, Australia, though it is still coming to terms with its aborigine problem (similar to native American Indian problem) has evolved, over time into a hugely cosmopolitan society in which many ethnic Chinese, in particular, have found a very happy home.
In this respect, the country is a splendid example of a very decent sort of place, with a working democracy and a high level of cultural and ethic tolerance. Its cities are models of cosmopolitanism and tolerance (and, from a pure tourist perspective, Melbourne and Sydney are to die for). Its democracy is very much functioning and some of its business and political leaders are exceptionally sharp.
Australia, like every other place, has a lot of problems; but unlike many other places, it will probably solve many of them in time. For that, just call me a sunny Aussie optimist.
Tom Plate is a UCLA professor, former editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.