The following is a revised version of a speech delivered at Asialink Melbourne on 3 December 2012.

In 1988, when I was working at the Australian Embassy in Beijing, I was asked to organise the bicentennial Australia-China cricket tour. A group of Australian test cricket veterans had a plan to introduce cricket to China, where the game would be taken up enthusiastically, helping it become an official Olympic sport, which would be likely to give Australia another chance at gold. No one can say that we are not capable of taking the long view and being strategic when it comes to something that matters.

These cricket visionaries were associated with a district cricket club whose local member happened to be the Deputy Prime Minister, so the plan had high level political backing, and brought substantial corporate support along too, from XXXX beer, then the property of Alan Bond, who flew up palette loads of tinnies. The plan required an exhibition match to be played in Beijing between an Australian eleven of test cricketers and a Chinese team. The problem was, there was no Chinese team. There were no Chinese cricketers to play against. There was no cricket in China. It became my job to find the team. After negotiations with the Beijing Institute of Sport, a willing group of men’s hockey and baseball players was identified and they came to the Embassy to train. In due course, the Australian cricket stars arrived. We decided to mix and match the teams, half Australian test cricketers, half Chinese newcomers in each side. The result on the day was a diplomatic draw. I was the umpire.

But what happened next was that a couple of the Chinese impressed the Australians with their talent for the game – one spin-bowler in particular, who was then sponsored to come to Australia for further training. He was so good that he was soon playing district cricket and working as an intern coaching youngsters at the Bradman Museum in Bowral. He took on the name Bruce, and loved what he was doing so much that he applied to stay in Australia. The best way to do this was to apply for a special talent visa. Other sportspeople from China, such as gymnasts, and artists too, had done so successfully, but Bruce’s application was rejected. The Department said that no Chinese could satisfy the special talent requirement in cricket, because there was no cricket in China. Bruce had high-level support, as I’ve mentioned. He appealed, but was rejected again. The Department was sticking to its position. In the end, Bruce rather disconsolately went back to Beijing, where he joined a start-up advertising agency that is now one of the biggest in China. He looks back wryly on his near-miss as an Aussie cricketer.

I am grateful to have lived this story first hand and to be able to vouch for its truth. It illustrates the knots Australia gets itself into dealing with Asia, epitomising the mix of aspiration, fantasy, inflexibility and doubt we project outward. When something unexpectedly good happens, we are unable to recognise it. It is a story that could have been a footnote to the chapter in Australia’s Asia by Agnieszka Sobocinska, one of the book’s co-editors, titled ‘Hearts of darkness, hearts of gold’, in which she writes of Australian attempts to regulate Asian societies through the work of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in post-war Japan and the Volunteer Graduate Scheme in post-independence Indonesia. So many good intentions.

But we have moved on. We are now in the Asian century and Australia’s Asia could not be a more timely publication, coming on the heels of the government’s recently released White Paper on Australia in the Asia Century. Not only is it much more readable, it answers one of the big questions that the White Paper raises for a reader like myself.

Fourteen essays by scholars of various disciplinary, cultural and national backgrounds, with a shared interest in history, examine what Australia’s history reveals in its responses to and engagements with Asia, and explore how Australian history might be reconceived in terms of Australia’s Asian contexts and dimensions. The contributors adopt different perspectives from customary Australian history writing, which is often insular and, if international, prefers to connect with British, European and, to a lesser extent, American history. Australia’s Asia offers counter-narratives to the received Australian narrative of Asia, dominated by the implementation, impact and slow dismantling of the White Australia policy. Some of the best, most enjoyable parts of the book are the stories of individuals who resist or qualify that overview, within and without, such as the Anglo-Chinese families discussed by Kate Bagnall, who celebrates ‘the complex history of intimate relationships between white women and Chinese men in the Australian colonies’.

So often the person-to-person interactions tell a different story from the dominant narrative: they throw a line to a different future. As the editors explain in their introduction, Australia’s proximity with Asia predates European contact, and ‘over the [subsequent] two hundred years, the Asia “without” and the Asia “within” [have been variously] constituted by the lives, imaginings and cross-cultural contacts of Asians and Australians.’

Sometimes those individuals were articulating a new vision. E.A. Foxall, for example, a Sydney businessman who was Secretary to the Japanese Consul in Australia, published Colorphobia: an exposure of the White Australia fallacy in 1903, as Kane Collins recounts in a chapter called ‘Imagining the Golden Race’. White, yellow, black and bronze were categories to be critiqued. ‘Beachcomber’ author E.J. Banfield noted that ‘the most earnest advocates’ of White Australia ‘use more than the average quantity of oil’ to go brown. Yet there was ‘a different kind of racism’ in the notion of ‘an ideal Eurasian type’ created from the right mix, and fundamental hierarchies remained. As Vance Palmer observed, the spiritual commitment to being a white British nation stood in the way of the Asian experiment.

One of my favourite discoveries in Australia’s Asia is the Chinese diplomat Tsao Wenyen, as revealed by Mark Finnane. Tsao served in Australia for eight years, from 1936 to 1944, when anti-‘yellow’ sentiment was at its most intense. He diagnosed the limitation of Australia’s reading of Asia as ‘driven only by the necessity of defence’. In the case of China, Tsao argued, it involved ‘a lack of proper recognition’ that ‘mutual understanding had to develop, founded on a deeper knowledge of each other’s history and culture.’ Donald Horne, as described here by Mads Clausen, was still cautious in the 1950s and ‘60s, even in the vanguard of change. Horne’s advocacy of regional engagement came with ‘apocalyptic rhetoric’: ‘Has Australia got a chance?’ In a droll sentence Horne writes, ‘Later we picked ourselves out of the ashcan of history, mixed our metaphors, and swam with the tide.’ By then the term ‘Asia’ had currency, but without much distinction or nuance. Clausen concludes that for progressives and conservatives alike engagement with Asia was fitful for Horne’s generation: ‘Regional perspectives were conspicuously absent and Asian settings served as little more than backdrops for allegories of nationhood.’

At Federation the contradictions were already there. Alfred Deakin, the architect of White Australia, who was also a passionate pilgrim to India, becomes a conflicted, potentially visionary Asianist in Ipsita Sengupta’s essay, where the ‘infinitely fluid’, ‘liminal’ space of India is folded into Deakin’s national Australian ‘determination’ as its pressuring, shaping other.

In compiling Australia’s Asia, David Walker, the inaugural BHP Billiton Chair of Australian Studies at Peking University, and Agnieszka Sobocinska assemble an argument from then to now. It begins with the unwelcome arrival of Chinese migrants by ship at Sydney Harbour in 1881, as discussed by Greg Watters, and continues with a naval visit by Japan in 1903. It ends with the MV Tampa and SIEV X in 2001, as evoked by Ruth Balint. While we may feel we have progressed somewhat when we read of situations from a hundred or more years ago, the book powerfully implies that we are repeating patterns of attitude and behaviour that are deeply inscribed. As it scrolls forward, an ugly past morphs into an inept near-present. I Nyoman Darma Putra’s chapter on Bali and Chengxin Pan’s essay on ‘Getting excited about China’ both hold up mirrors that reflect less than cosmetic truths. The former analyses relationships between Balinese and Australians as depicted in recent Balinese novels, arguing that ‘these narratives represent a desire to keep tourists away from the most intimate spheres of Balinese life and society’. The latter, responding to the ‘rich seam of Australia’s Asia anxiety’ in the debate provoked by Hugh White on whether Australia must choose between the United States and China, comments drily that ‘the US alliance has been deemed so important to Australia’s sense of security that at times it turns into … a source of anxiety itself’.

If the purpose of history is to understand the past so we can learn from it, the fate of historians is to be trapped inside their own bunkers in the present. Between them, Greg Lockhart and Sally Percival Wood, in a section called ‘Absent Asia’, do a pretty devastating job exposing the limitations of Australian history writing in relation to Asia. For Lockhart, this is a sin of commission rather than omission: the ‘outpost thought’ that has dominated Australia required barriers of ignorance, indifference and disengagement to be maintained. How can we be an outpost if we are right next door to the world’s fourth largest nation, Indonesia, with whom Australian interactions go back centuries? Yet the construction of White Australia was a conceptual blockade, as the ‘Eurasian enthusiasts’ saw early in the twentieth century.

That is all changing now with the Asian century. The White Paper projects an aspiration of Australia successfully bound to Asia as the source of future prosperity. The editors of Australia’s Asia make the point, contra the Prime Minister, that it is not the case that ‘we have not been here before’. Engagement with Asia is far from ‘unprecedented’ for Australia and ought not be thought of in that way. Many Australians have discovered Asia over the years and pursued their happiness on visits there and through the relationships that have developed with individuals and societies: ‘Australian enthusiasm for Asia is as old as [Australian] anxiety about Asia,’ Walker and Sobocinska write. It’s an old routine. They add laconically that ‘recognising the routine can be useful in itself’.

Many people have had a sense of déjà vu in reading the recent White Paper’s welcome, broad, sensible recommendations for how Australians can develop capacities to interact with Asia beneficially. What is missing from the White Paper is the recognition that so many of these aims have been articulated before and yet did not happen. What is missing from the White Paper is the monitoring and analysis of what went wrong. Where does the resistance lie? What is the cause of the incapacity? Why are we having to say all these things all over again?

Australia’s Asia offers a fundamental explanation. It returns to the spatial and racial anxieties that have defined Australia historically and are continually being re-inscribed, not only through myths of isolation and emptiness and the fearful consciousness of Indigenous dispossession and genocide, but through daily practices of insularity, monoculturalism and a binary ‘us and them’ classification. The book updates the thesis of David Walker’s seminal Anxious Nation (1999). We don’t know what to do with the reality that Asia is inside Australia as well as outside. That is especially so in the case of China and Chinese people, who were formative in how Australia came into existence. Helen Irving’s history of the Australian constitution is quoted here by Shirley Jennifer Lim: ‘the function played by the Chinese [was that] of identifying a community by what it is not.’ How can that be turned inside out? In his novel The Garden Book (2005), Brian Castro puts it this way: ‘The day Australia woke to a national identity, it fell asleep on the thorn of racial prejudice. It was defined by the wound.’

My own experience over a long involvement with Chinese-Australian relations is that the mindset is hard to change, even though on a daily basis a real proximity is happening all around us in myriad ways. It does require an unsettling of the foundations, a new articulation. Chengxin Pan says politely: ‘What we need is a critical examination of Australia’s self-identity and self-knowledge.’ Ironically, as Michael Wesley reminds us, Asia has become a measure of Australia’s post-imperial modernity, assuming ‘a talismanic role in Australian politics and public discourse’, especially for the Australian Labor Party. It is China at the moment, a fixation that risks neglect of the rest of Asia in between –  Singapore, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, South Korea, and so on, to name some of the countries that don’t get specific attention in Australia’s Asia either. This policy talisman Asia is another projection in service of Australia, conceived in accordance with insular, defensive needs.

The impulse is to corral and manage. Australia’s cultural institutions have tended to balkanise Asia in this way, dividing it up for their convenience as the imperial powers once carved up the world. I was disappointed, for example, on a recent visit to the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra, where I go looking to experience the dynamism of our cultural moment, to find a gallery downstairs at the back with a small miscellany of ancient Chinese pots, Tang horses, Song and Ming heads jumbled in with a similar handful of antiquities from Japan, Korea and Tibet – plus works by the contemporary Chinese artists Zhang Xiaogang and Hong Hao, all labeled together as East Asian Art. That’s like putting some pre-Columbian pots and some Inuit masks in a gallery with a photo by Cindy Sherman and one Andy Warhol print and labeling it American Art. China is the cultural background of a significant part of Australia’s population, the source of Australia’s second most spoken language, as well as one of the largest countries in the world in every sense, and one of Australia’s most important partners. I counted a total of 25 works of Chinese art on display in the national gallery, two by artists with names. Compared to how many works from France or the United States? The NGA’s display suggests that ‘East Asian Art’ exists in a removed, timeless, faceless realm (those decapitated statues), that it is somehow optional, as if we don’t really need to bother. Yet China is no longer optional for Australia, and cultural institutions have a responsibility to inform and be informed.

Australia’s Asia diagnoses the problem in its continuing, shifting guises. Therapy could start with the ‘independent Australian-Aboriginal-Asian histories’ that Greg Lockhart calls for, and the pluralism of inquiry that this book demonstrates, and the respectful listening, reciprocity and attention to different meanings that go to create the ‘mutual understanding of … history and culture’ that Tsao Wenyen knew was necessary. As the best history does, Australia’s Asia makes the link between past and present in ways that move us forward in the work of replacing emptiness with intellectual plenty.

Read the ‘Outpost Thinking’ correspondence.