One of the most immediately apparent features of Australia is its vast emptiness. A mere 23 million people are spread over a landmass the size of the continental United States.
Actually, not spread over at all: Almost half the population lives in just two cities, Sydney and Melbourne. The capital, Canberra, makes Washington seem like Paris and Rio de Janeiro rolled into one. And then there’s Perth, Adelaide, Darwin and Brisbane, and that’s about it. (Pre-emptive apologies to Hobart.)
So when I was in parliament in Canberra recently, speaking with the prime minister, Julia Gillard, about the unfixable Middle East mess, a solution came to mind: Why not move the Israelis and the Palestinians to a couple of Australia’s most underpopulated states? Australia could use the collective moxie of these two well-educated and neurotic peoples.
Gillard, who is one of the Australian Labour Party’s few remaining stalwart Israel supporters, had a quick comeback: "Funny you should say that. As history recalls there was an active debate about giving the Jewish people a section of Australia as a resolution of their desire to have a state, but there’s a reason they wanted their homeland where it is. Policy-makers may have misunderstood the nature of the aspiration."
OK, so no wholesale transplant of Israelis (or, presumably, Palestinians). The fact remains: Australia is an empty country. Yet there’s much anxiety there about refugees and migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and all across Asia.
To an American visitor, that anxiety seems a bit overblown — last year, according to the United Nations, Australia admitted only 9,200 refugees. I asked Gillard why her country couldn’t open its gates a bit wider. After all, Australia seeks to be a Top 10 world economy (it is the 12th biggest now, by most counts). An influx of Asian immigrants could be beneficial. Her response was telling.
"We’ve done all right when it comes to landmass," she said. "We’ve got a lot of land, but it’s dry land. One of the biggest domestic political issues we debate is water. In terms of migration settings, we run a sizable migration program, and we do that to meet our nation’s economic needs, but it will always be calibrated to those needs, and the core of it is a skilled migration program."
Although there is limited appetite in Australia for Asian immigrants, in other words, there is no limit to the Australian appetite for Asian money. Most of the country’s political and economic elite, led by Gillard, seem eager to pivot their economy toward Asia. A substantial amount of China’s industrial growth is already fueled by minerals extracted from that dry Australian soil. Gillard’s government recently issued a white paper that labeled the coming era the Asian Century, and promised that every Australian school would teach at least one Asian language.
In 10 days of conversations across Australia, however, apprehension about China’s rise among many in the country’s middle class was a consistent theme. One junior officer in the Australian military who I spoke to put it this way: The government can try to make Australia as Asian as it wants, but most people are happier believing their country is solidly in the American sphere of influence, rather than the Chinese.
Australians who are sensitive about their country’s sovereignty have been grumbling about the stationing of 2,500 U.S. Marines in Darwin. On the whole, though, most of those I spoke to thought that the Marines will help check Chinese political ambitions in their region.
When I asked Gillard if the Chinese were right to suspect that the Marine contingent was part of an American-led strategy to limit China’s reach, she scoffed.
"We are not engaged in a containment strategy of China. The idea that the Chinese would be flummoxed by 2,500 Marines is a little bit of an odd proposition." She quickly added: "I know the Marines are a very elite force, but 2,500 of them do not pose an emerging threat to China." She said the Marines were being stationed in Darwin primarily because they wanted a tough terrain on which to train.
It’s fairly obvious, though, that this was a fine bit of spin. The U.S. clearly has tough training terrain as well. Stationing Marines in Darwin can’t be interpreted any other way except as a signal from Australia to the Chinese: We want your business, and we will learn your language, but we will not be subsumed by you.
This is an unprecedented moment for Australia. In the words of Michael Fullilove, the executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, "For the first time in our history, our largest trading partner is a potential peer competitor of our great strategic ally."
I asked Gillard if she thought her country was walking too fine a line. As Australia grows more and more dependent on the Chinese market, can its historical alliance with the U.S. really remain unchanged?
"Asia’s rise — China, India, Indonesia — the continuing strength of Japan and South Korea, the emergence from poverty of many nations toward more advanced economies, all means that we need to grasp the economic opportunities coming our way," she said. "We have the ability to map out a course in this century so that we all benefit from this time of change. But none of this detracts from a long-term pivotal alliance with the United States, and we want the United States to be on this journey in our region as it changes, as a partner with us and a partner in the region."
It seems plausible that China, which at times conducts its foreign policy in a carelessly prickly and aggressive manner, could one day confront Australia (and other U.S. allies in the region) with unpredictable national-security challenges. As Australia pivots toward China, then, it makes eminent sense to keep the U.S. very close by.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic.