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The changing face of Australia's national identity

Can country maintain its delicate balancing act between East and West?

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The changing demographics of cities like Sydney are challenging concepts of "Australian."   © Reuters

Twenty-five years ago, Australia's then-Prime Minister Paul Keating gave a speech railing against fellow Australians who could not "separate our interests, our history, or our future, from the interests of Britain."

At the time, the Labor Party leader was taking aim at Anglophiles who saw the country's destiny in terms of the "ghost of empire," rather than where he believed it really lay -- in Asia.

These words proved prophetic. Strolling around Melbourne today, there is no confusing this cosmopolitan city for the Australia of Robert Menzies, the country's longest-serving prime minister, who once declared that the average Australian knew "in his mind" that he was British.

Asia's presence imbues Australia's second city, and others like it, from the throngs of Chinese students who congregate on the steps of the State Library of Victoria, to the casual appearance of "Asian fusion" dishes on the menus of even the most traditional, lager-or-nothing pubs.

More than a quarter of Australia's population is now foreign-born, according to July census data -- more than in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand or the U.K. And for the first time since colonial settlement, immigrants from Asia outnumber those born in Europe, with China, India and the Philippines alone accounting for about 20% of foreign-born residents.

While still overwhelmingly white and European, Australia's changing demographics pose a challenge to the image of the "typical" Australian, immortalized at home and abroad in caricatures of farmhands and wanderers, or "swagmen," sporting cork-fringed hats.

Isabella Kwai, a Sydney-based writer who was born in Shanghai, sees the growing presence of first-generation Asian-Australians as expanding the definition of the national identity.

"It's not that they are ashamed of their heritage at all, but it's become something more entwined I think with Australian identity," Kwai, 23, says. "I think it's sort of a hybrid, that's probably the best way to talk about it."

It is not just cultural. Australia is more economically connected to the most populous continent than ever before, too. China has been its largest single source of trade for a decade, with Asian countries taking up five of the remaining spots among its top-10 trade partners.

'WELCOME TO CHINATOWN' None of which is to say that Australia's drift toward Asia has occurred without considerable anxiety or resistance. When the census results were published, a local newspaper carried a picture of the iconic Sydney Opera House juxtaposed with a neon sign reading: "Welcome to Chinatown," drawing accusations from some that it was stoking fears of the "yellow peril."

In recent years, property speculation by foreigners and large-scale immigration, particularly by Chinese, have been blamed by some Australians for fueling the country's stratospheric house prices, a causation hotly contested by some economists.

Alleged interference by the Chinese government in domestic politics has been another recurring concern. Most recently, Australian media in June detailed claims from within the intelligence community that the Chinese Communist Party and its overseas supporters posed a "direct threat to the nation's liberties and its sovereignty." Among other examples of interference, the reports described how Beijing had funneled secret donations to Australian politicians.

In many ways, Australia's ambivalence about the "Asian century" -- as a previous government described Asia's rising clout -- parallels existential questions about the country's place in the world. In the aftermath of World War II, Australia's primary connection to the West became the U.S., which usurped Britain's role as its security guarantor and principal diplomatic ally. The military alliance has endured with broad political support and Canberra has largely stuck by Washington's foreign policy line.

On one hand, the relationship has provided assurances of security for a sprawling land mass that has fewer people than Texas, even after decades of strong population growth. On the other, overlapping stances on issues such as the South China Sea have fomented increasingly obvious tensions with Beijing, whose appetite for Australian exports has fueled an unprecedented quarter-century of uninterrupted economic growth. As a result, Australia constantly performs a delicate balancing act between the competing giants of the established and emerging orders, leaving many to wonder if such a feat can be maintained in perpetuity.

"Trade with China or security with the U.S.? Australia will have to choose," opined one analysis of Australia's position published in The Conversation last year. As Australia navigates the uncertain path between East and West, the one certainty is that the clock will not go back. A big part of Australia's future, as with its present, lies in Asia. It is written on the faces of the many new Australians that walk Melbourne's streets.

John Power is a Melbourne-based writer.

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