Given it’s still the offseason, I thought we might want to revisit an passtime of a previous time. When I was a child in the 90s, during the Keating era, there was a fairly pointless question (they never bothered to actually debate it); Is Australia part of Asia? Whilst the question did have implications for membership in various diplomatic clubs, here it was usually framed as part of culture wars inanity. For me, finding the implications rather mild, it’s mainly an academic diversion.
And the problem, as I see it, isn’t determining where Australia belongs, or whether belonging in one category precludes belonging in others (like “The West” or “The Anglosphere”). It’s working out what “Asia” is anyway. Can we really come up with a non-arbitrary definition that includes every country we usually call Asia without including Australia?
The most basic definition is geographic. Things within certain bounds are “Asia”. Things outside it are not Asian. This is the basis for the map at right. There’s obvious problems here though. Oceans are big, so drawing a border at say, the Pacific (excluding North America) or the Indian Ocean (excluding Antarctica), but if you can jump the Malacca straits or the Richard Green Sea [fn1] or any of the other innumerable straits and seas that separate islands from the continental mass, why suddenly say that the Timor Sea or Torres Strait is too far, let alone the tiny rivulet of the Suez Canal? And if you can cross the Himalayas, taller than any other, why balk at the modesty of the Urals, or the Caucasus mountains. If there was something beneath it all, as is literally the case with plate tectonics, we might have something, but there is a mass of plates underneath “Asia”, Australia shares a plate with parts of Indonesia (“Asian” by common consent) and almost all of Europe and all of China is on a single plate.
So geographically there is little case for excluding Australia from Asia, and even less for excluding Europe. To exclude them would be to determine that Asia is defined by whatever boundaries we draw, and on that basis we may as well include Mars.
Even so, the map is too broad for the debate of my childhood. They weren’t asking how Australia related to Tajikistan (with whom we do not have an embassy) or the “Asia” referred to by the ancient Mediterraneans (which made more sense given the limited geographic knowledge of the times) – now better known as “The Middle East”. What the 90s debates referred to was more likely something called “East and South East Asia”. The “Asia” closest to us.
The geographic definitions are still unsatisfactory here, so we turn to cultural explanations.
The most identifiable part of culture is language – in fact the Mandarin ?? – “culture” – translates as “language blossom”. Linguists make a great passtime of arranging languages into families. Can we identify Asia by these? Australia, as an English speaking country, speaks an Indo-European language. If we exclude this from our definition of “Asia” we would also have to exclude India, but many of the debaters of the 90s may have been doing this anyway. If we bundle together the Sino-Tibetan language family, the Austronesian language family and a few isolates like Japanese and Korean we do manage to get all the usual suspects. But on what basis do we bundle this language families together? Why would we assume these separate families have a togetherness that excludes Indo-European languages? Moreover, even if we could, the inclusion of Austronesian languages necessitates calling the nations of the South Pacific “Asian”, and even doing the same for Madagascar. I really doubt anyone was including them in their crude definitions of Asia.
What about religion, or broader worldview? There’s little common denominator here. There is an important, and real (at least in a tendency towards bureaucratic government) “Confucian” sphere comprising Greater China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan that excludes Australia, but it also excludes a great deal of what we are used to calling Asia. Likewise, Buddhism is widespread, but it not present or a majority in many of the countries involved. Even in countries where it is present it has a historical association with political elites, and may say no more about national identity than that those same elites now can speak English. In Japan, amongst the darkest on that map, Buddhism is for the most part a veneer at funerals, to compliment the Shinto veneer at birth and the peculiar faux Christianity at weddings. The Muslims in Indonesia and Malaysia have a shared Abrahamic heritage with Christian majority societies like Australia that is entirely absent with other “Asian” countries and the Phillipines, as well as sizable and growing minorities elsewhere are Christian. There’s little help here.
We could turn to the Wallace line, which represents a sharp biological divide, but; What do these other species have to do with Human affairs? It may divide off Australia, but where do we draw lines elsewhere to make an “Asia? And would this make BJ Habibie one of us?
There is no historical empire that once covered them all, they don’t have a shared colonial experience and looking for racial characteristics is as distasteful as it is fruitless (would we then decide that Australia is roughly 8% part of Asia). Where do we turn?
The last “Banyan” – the pseudonym used for The Economist’s Asian correspondent, tried an attitudinal tact when defending the idea of Asia.
What a huge chunk of Asia does have in common is a joint adventure, namely the pursuit of materialism based on rapid economic development. The optimism is striking. Tomorrow may look different from today, but everyone agrees that it is likely to be better.
But as I put it here
Banyan’s effort at finding a definition of Asia is a fair stab at defending the concept. Whilst it excludes the Middle East (The original ‘Asia’), Central Asia and parts of South Asia by it’s focus on optimism, growth, dynamism and expectations of change, it also interestingly excludes Japan, who in her malaise must seem far more Western.
On the other hand, the only thing that appears to exclude Australia (which remains far more positive than any of her apparent peers in the ‘West’) from Asia by Banyan’s standard is the lack of a history of violently insane governments that gives Banyan pause whenever they see arrogance arising. I don’t think we are alone in Asia in this, or maybe we could claim indigenous history on our membership form.
The second paragraph refers to Banyan’s apprehensions about the standard of governance, and what he sees as shallow rooted democracies. It may well be that Australia differs from “Asia” is this regard, given no democracy in Asia behaves the way ours has done consistently over the past century. But neither does any in Africa or South America, nor do most in Europe (note the paucity of democracies by 1939) and the South Pacific. Given this apparent rarity, our democracy may help define Australia, but it in no way helps define an Asia for us not to be a part of – even if we accept the all too easy dismissal of Asian democracy.
This has been entertaining, and I invite you all to try it as well, but I have to conclude that Australia is not part of Asia for the same reason that it is not part of Purple Dinokranskyland: Because Asia doesn’t exist.
[fn1] Thus I triangulate the dispute and bring peace to the world