America First is not necessarily Australia First. That is, leaving aside the biological or human tendencies to be ‘tribal’ or sectarian etc, in my opinion, the Australian perspective, mindset and psyche as to how China and the Chinese are viewed must obviously be different from the Americans. It is and must in fact be based on our Australian historical experience and relationship and our close geographical and time zone proximity with China and the Chinese.
And so unlike most ordinary Americans who have never travelled overseas unless they are going to war we Australians are lucky in that it is cheaper for us to travel to Bali or Kuala Lumpur or Singapore or Bangkok for our holidays, then it is to travel and have our holidays within Australia. And unlike us, most Americans would not have heard of Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Jakarta or Bali. We are in ‘Austral-Asia’! We are part of or part of us is with Asia. We ordinary Australians interact with ‘Chinese’ people everyday in our lives, particularly if we reside in the main Australian capital cities. We have Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke to thank for this. Most of the ‘boat-people’ from Vietnam were ‘Chinese diaspora’. Then we had a surge of Chinese migrants (students allowed to stay) after Tiananmen. And in recent years we have hordes of Chinese tourists from the Mainland. And this is not counting the number of overseas students from Mainland China at our Universities. Mind you, the number of overseas Chinese diaspora students, like I was, from former British colonies in the Far East have also increased dramatically since my time. It is not just the number of Chinese around us in our daily life and the consequent familiarity we have with them that has promoted or increase our propensity to understand them. It is also the resultant cross-fertilisation or cross-acceptance of our different traditions and culture that is truly significant, and this is obvious in the changing profile of Australian standard food cuisine and fruit and vegetables that we eat. Take Sydney today as an illustration. You are virtually ‘one to one’ with China and the Chinese diaspora, not just in Chinatown but also Ashfield, Burwood, Strathfield, Bankstown, Canley Vale, Cabramatta, Chatswood, Eastwood, Carlingford. Unlike America, here in Australia we consider Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian food as standard fare, as it had with Greek, Italian, Lebanese food etc. Australian Food is simply ‘fusion’. And ‘fusion’ is how we Australians view China and the Chinese. Our understanding has grown a long way from mundane Cantonese ‘chop suey’ and chiko rolls such that we now have an ability to distinguish the parochial and dialectical differences between the different Shanghai, Sichuan, Xinjiang (Sinkiang), Yunnan, Peking, Taiwan, Hakka and other cuisine
It is not as if there should still remain in our psyche an inherent fear of the ‘unknown’ in the Chinese as it was the case in the past, in our pre-Federation anglospheric era. We were not a multicultural society then. We are now. And the Australian population were not well travelled nor well educated then. Now, with internet and travel and almost every Tom Dick or Harry having a basic university education it is a brand new Australia. We are a global-oriented minded Australia. We have learnt from the mistake of our Founders in the xenophobia of the White Australia Policy.
Yet without us knowing it, deep in our true blue Australian ‘she’ll be right’ mateship soul and psyche we are all ‘Chinese’ when we are ‘fair dinkum’ Aussies. The Irish miners and the Irish Government Assayists of the Victorian gold fields (those days in Victoria all gold had to be sold to the Crown Treasury) would take the ‘Mickey’ out of the Chinese miners by saying their tendered gold was ‘false’ gold. In reply the Chinese miners would respond ‘Ding Kum! Ding Kum!’ (Genuine Gold! Genuine Gold!). And also as we now know, the Chinese were trading for trepang (beche de mer or sea cucumber) with the locals up in Arnhem Land long before Captain Cook came sailing by. So, we have had an ancient association with China and the Chinese. Guess why the locals in the Northern Territory call their local and most poisonous snake in the world ‘Tai Pan’? It is Chinese for ‘Big Disaster!’ But of course if you are not a Don Dunstan you would say – ‘total nonsense’.
If we accept however that even Chinese words are now part of our Australian ethos, how much more true is it not that we are in Asia’s doorstep, and that China and its diaspora extend all the way through ASEAN and to our immediate neighbour Indonesia? Can we argue with Amy Chua’s finding that the ASEAN economies are controlled by the Chinese diaspora? Would China be a threat to its own diaspora? I think not. It would be more like an umbrella of an insurance policy. And would it not be safer for Australia to piggy-ride by being quasi-ASEAN rather than flying ‘America First’? This is not a zero sum game to be based on the Thucydides Trap. Australia/America viz-a-viz China is not exactly Athens viz-a-viz Sparta speaking the same language and having the same mindset, psyche, culture and traditions. Any fear and self-egoistical interest might best be handled or managed with mutual respect as in the Ballad of East and West by Rudyard Kipling of the encounter between two incompatible cultures in the North West Frontier. Understanding comes from knowing that the East and West see through different lenses. The East sees panoramically in holistic breath and the West zooms in on the details and analytically. And that the East and West think differently. The East thinks in shades of grey to harmonise collectively the ever-changing phantasmagoria but the West sees in black and white terms and seeks individual certainty and ascendancy and authoritative rules. And that gets back to the starting point of understanding the Chinese continuing antiquity and survival being based on the paramount Taoist tenet of ‘harmony’ above all things, as inherent in the Taoist yin/yang or wei/wu-wei (action/inaction) principle of duality or inversion of and in all things.
Vincent Cheok is a retired lawyer and accountant. He worked in the Australian Taxation Office, HK Inland Revenue, PNG Internal Revenue Commission, SA Crown Law and later as a corporate and fiscal lawyer in private sector