The newly released Lowy Poll showed that a mere 25 percent of young Australians aged 18-29 see the U.S.-Australia alliance as “very important,” and the rest show a tilt towards Asia. This is a stark contrast to the 43 percent across all age brackets with such high regard for the alliance. The Lowy Poll, as the leading tracking survey on Australian public opinion and foreign policy, provides an independent, rigorous, reliable basis for understanding Australian attitudes to the world.
The trend that the Lowy Poll reveals actually has nothing to do with Trump’s incompetence on the coronavirus pandemic but more with opportunities to be found in Asia as a rising power. The Australian Millennials’ confidence in the U.S. has declined. The oldest of the generation did even not experience the Cold War, which for the youngest is ancient history. They, however, were born during the “global war on terror” and have been living with the global financial crisis. They saw the U.S. incompetence or failings in the most important international crises, such as the Arab uprisings, the Syrian civil war, climate change, and President Trump’s withdrawal from international organizations one after another. In their lifetimes, they never saw the U.S. as a helpful great power but rather as a profit snatcher of Australia.
Meanwhile, Australia’s preferential policy for Asia provides more chances for the young to connect with Asia. Australia formulated its Indo-Pacific Strategy as early as 1976 and hoped to play a role in the Indo-Pacific area. The Australians have lots of contacts and connections with Asians. Especially in recent years, more and more Australian students have been studying in countries in the Asia-pacific region, with 14 percent in China alone in 2018, 4 percent more than in the United States. It is partly because of Australia’s New Colombo Plan, exclusively aiming at “study and work-based experiences in the Indo-Pacific to become a rite of passage for young Australian undergraduate students.” At the same time, its high-quality higher education and comfortable living environment attract a large number of Asian students to study in Australia. The total number of international students coming to Australia in 2019 was 812,000, 9 percent higher than that in the previous year (about 748,000). The greatest number of incoming students were from China (229,000), followed by India (122,000), Nepal (60,000), Brazil (32,000), and Vietnam (28,000). The top five source countries were all Asian ones except Brazil. Of all Australian scientific publications, Australia-China collaborations now account for 16.2 percent, up from 3.1 percent in 2005, 0.7 percentage point more than the U.S. and ranking No.1. It can be concluded that the youngsters have better understanding of and more collaborations with Asians than their parents.
2020 may be a new start due to the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. economy experienced its biggest recession in the second quarter since data began to be recorded in 1947. More than 5,000 retail stores have closed down, including Brooks Brothers, Muji, and Sur La Table, and 33 U.S. universities with over 5,690 students enrolled have announced permanent closure, and the number is growing. Australia is currently experiencing the worst recession in the past nearly 30 years, while its unemployment rate reached 7.4 percent in June, the highest level during the past 22 years. However, in the second quarter, China’s economy turned from negative to positive, taking the lead in economic recovery as its GDP rose to 72.5 percent of that of the U.S. for the first time. Therefore, 28 percent of Australian Millennials have “some confidence” in Chinese President Xi Jinping while only 16 percent in the U.S. President Donald Trump, according to the Lowy Poll.
Historically, 2020 is quite similar to 1920s. Economic downturn and anti-China trends in the West ironically made the westerners turn their eyes to and seek fortune from Asia and China. During that time, thousands of unemployed westerners left their communities to find work elsewhere. Until the 1930s, the circulation of poorer Australians around Asian port cities still had clear effects on native populations. Sydney Morning Herald in 1927 reported: “Girl bank clerk has just come from a job in Shanghai where she earned £37 a month! She did her shopping in suitcases!”
The Federal Advisory Committee on Eastern Trade put in its report: “It is important that we should endeavor to develop and improve our relations with closer neighbors whose fortunes are so important to us, not only in economic matters, but also in relation to vital issues of peace and war.” History is repeating itself. Asia is rising and China is rising. A better China and Asia lie ahead, with more chances awaiting youth with vision.
Will Australian Millennials’ Asian dream come true? It all depends on a rising Asia.
SU TIPING is the director of the Australian Studies Centre at Xi’an International Studies University.