What is Australia’s role in the incoming Asian Century? It’s a question Australia’s international relations sphere continues to grapple with. Fears around cultural incompatibility, being perceived as the Western outsider in our region and navigating the US-China tug of war haven’t helped in finding a clear answer.
Despite this seemingly endless debate, Australia has an untapped resource which it continues to overlook—Asian Australians.
The Asian Australian community in Australia is considerable. A notable 12 per cent of Australians are of Asian heritage, comparable to the size of the African American community in the USA.
This number, however, is not represented in our leadership positions. Only 3 per cent of senior leadership positions across public institutions and Australian Stock Exchange 200 companies (its largest 200 companies based on market capitalisation) are held by Asian Australians.
Gareth Evans, former Chancellor of the Australian National University, points to a number of reasons for this, from racial prejudice, general stereotyping, a level of cultural inhibition within Asian Australians (such as an unwillingness to challenge authority) and a failure for corporations to commit to cultural inclusion as they would with gender diversity.
Whatever the cause may be, the existence of this ‘bamboo ceiling’ holds back Australia’s potential—especially in our diplomatic sphere. For example, there has never been an Asian Australian ambassador to China or Indonesia in the post’s history.
An Australian ambassador that has cultural links to our priority relationships with Asian countries would surely send a strong message about our commitment and role in our region.
These benefits can be seen by the rich, compelling stories of our Asian Australian ambassadors. For example, His Excellency James Choi, Ambassador to Korea, migrated to Australia from Korea when he was four years old. He lived in multiple cities across Korea due to his father being a helicopter pilot in the Korean army. He views his posting as a “sense of home coming—or a sense of belonging—in returning to Seoul.”
Peter Varghese’s story, former Ambassador to India (who later became the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), further speaks to the promise of opportunity in Australia. He states, “It was education which took my parents from rural villages in India to university, propelled them to make careers as teachers in Kenya and finally brought our family to Australia where my parents saw greener opportunities for the education and careers of their nine children.” Significantly, the post is currently held by another Australian with Indian origins, Her Excellency Harinder Sidhu.
The international image of Australia is our beautiful beaches, unique wildlife and easy-going attitude. But if we really want to build our relationship with Asia, it’s time to talk about our migration story.
Asia’s connection to Australia is not new. In fact, the Chinese were some of the earliest migrants to Australia in the 19th century. Since then, we have welcomed migrants across Asia, from Korea, to Vietnam, to Sri Lanka, to India. Almost half of Australia’s population were born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas. These communities not only contribute to Australia’s economic success, but our culture too.
Our Asian Australian Ambassadors represent this compelling narrative. It also shows what else Australia has to offer beyond purely aesthetics—substantial economic and educational opportunity for all.
Asian Australians in our diplomatic representation also shifts negative perceptions of Australia. This was affirmed by Leader of the Opposition Penny Wong, who acknowledged that many in the international community have not forgotten “Australia’s past attitudes on race”. However, when representing Australia on an international front, her Asian Australian heritage was received positively and showed “an independent multicultural Australia confident of our place in the world.”
An Australia confident of our place in the world seems far off given the tumultuous debate around what exactly Australia’s role is in Asia.
However, maybe the first step is to simply acknowledge it is not an ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Indeed, perhaps it is a ‘we’.
The point of this article is not to argue that only Asian Australians are capable of holding relevant Asia postings. Doing so would dismiss the tireless efforts of past and present diplomats we are fortunate to have, reflected in Australia’s strong advancements in how we engage with the region.
Nonetheless, Australia cannot underestimate the impact of diaspora diplomacy. From an economic standpoint, Asian Australians have pre-existing connections to the Asian region, alongside language skills.
But, even more importantly, they bring cultural understandings. The very duality of being an Asian Australian bridges the gap between Australia and Asia. It allows us to change how we view the region beyond mere economic utility and see that we share deep commonalities with our neighbours. This is what is necessary to build strong, long standing ties.
While Australia may still have a problem with the ‘bamboo ceiling’, the sooner we can acknowledge the strength of Asian Australians in our diplomatic strategy, the better. After all, migration weaves the fabric of what Australia is today.
In an increasingly globalised world, that’s an image we want to show with pride.
Yasmin Poole is a Bachelor of Laws/International Relations student at the Australian National University. She was named one of the Top 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian Australians in 2019.
This article was commissioned for YAIA's International Women's Day series