The struggle between Australia's history and geography -- the history dominated by British influence, the geography by proximity to Asia -- has been an enduring theme in the country's contemplation of itself. But while the contest is not new, it is becoming more intense and its ramifications are widening. A range of activities and institutions is involved, including the monarchy, the special species of Australian democracy, trade, languages, military security, and cultural ties.
Settled by Aborigines more than forty thousand years ago and first colonized by the British at Sydney in 1788, Australia was peopled by waves of migrants from the United Kingdom. Though Germans began to arrive as farmers in the 1840s and Chinese landed in the 1850s to dig for gold, the Australians on the eve of the Second World War were overwhelmingly British in ancestry. Most of Australia's exports -- wool, foodstuffs, and minerals -- went to Britain and about half of its imports came back from there. Australia was also tied to Britain in defense, and Australian volunteers fought on its side in the Sudan, Boer, and First and Second World Wars; more Australian than U.S. troops were killed in the First World War, and that out of a population of under five million.
Between Europe and Asia
In the last fifty-five years Australia's move away from Britain has been persistent but harmonious. Military alliance with the United States began at the end of 1941 when Japan advanced southward, and a year later far more Australians were fighting under the overall command of American than of British leaders. A quarter of a century later the war in Vietnam was the first in which Australian regiments fought not as part of a British alliance. Once tight trade links with Britain were quickly loosened and in the 1960s japan became Australia's main trading partner, with the United States in second place. The population ties also weakened when, soon after the Second World War, Australia decided it had to boost its population and industrial self-sufficiency if it was to defend itself effectively in the event of another Pacific war. Immigration was encouraged, indeed subsidized, from continental Europe as well as the British Isles. Between 1945 and 1970 well over half of the immigrants to Australia came from Germany, Holland, Italy, Greece, and the nations of continental Europe. Asian and Third World waves of immigration have become prominent since the late 1970s. Largely a result of this postwar migration, Australia's population grew from seven million to eighteen million between 1945 and 1995.
The ties and entanglements with East Asia are now strong. More than 60 percent of Australian exports go to Asia. Japanese ownership of Australian real estate has become substantial since restrictions on foreign investment in land were largely removed in 1986. East Asia is now the main source of tourism. Asian students come in large numbers to Australian colleges and universities, and some Australian universities have built small campuses in nearby lands ranging from China to Malaysia. In Australian schools, an Asian language is supplanting Latin, French, and German as the favored foreign language. In a typical year more than 40 percent of the immigrants and more than 50 percent of the net gain through migration come from Asia. The Asian percentage of the population will probably not exceed 10 percent before the year 2010, but it might well exceed 3 3 percent before the end of the twenty-first century.
Curiously, Canberra's official and semi-official propaganda, having camouflaged the Asian immigration for at least fifteen years by employing its own narrow and unique definition of "Asia", now tends to exaggerate the extent of Asian and other non-European immigration by arguing that Australia is the most "multicultural" nation in the world. As the meaning of these words is...