Ross Terrill’s long road to China
9 Apr 2013|
Ross Terrill’s life course and professional experience mirror much of what has happened in Australian geopolitics and economic life since WWII. The country lad growing up in Gippsland started with the ‘umbilical cord’ view of Australia’s link to Britain. But the Australianness of Ross Terrill found its expression in spheres well beyond the Victorian bush or the joys of Melbourne University. Terrill went on to become a citizen of both the United States and Australia, as he immersed himself in the study of China.

The Professor’s working life has been in the US and China but he offers a distinctly Australian view of these two giants. The Terrill who went on the journey to China with Gough Whitlam in 1971 (in several senses a trail Ross Terrill had mapped) can write of the similarities between the Labor Prime Minister of the 1970s and today’s US President:

Australian social democrats rightly sense a fellow feeling with Obama. In his multilateral rationality he resembles Whitlam and other Labor figures. Grand gestures are irresistible to such leaders; Whitlam freed New Guinea, recognised an unwitting North Korea, wanted to start a government newspaper and carved up the pie as if the Australian purse was limitless. Obama has said his cause is to bring the Kingdom of God on earth, lower the sea levels, and ‘spread the wealth around’. His second inaugural speech emphasised gay rights and climate change more than national security. Only the pressure of events is likely to constrain Obama to resolutely safeguard sea lanes and free trade, protect integrity of the Internet and buoy Washington’s true friends.

The long Terrill road to China and his long view of Australia’s place in Asia is a handy perspective as Julia Gillard enjoys the high politics of diplomacy on her second visit to China. Terrill’s op-ed for Fairfax on Gillard’s China trip was a meditation on the dangers of Australia seeking a new version of the one of the constants of our history—the comfort of a big protector:

Australia’s obsession with ”great and powerful friends” has found a new partner. Britain long since lost its teeth and shrank to a tourist mecca. Uncle Sam’s joints are failing. But China rises and Australia dances in response. We seem to need a lodestar for our foreign policy.

In the Asian Century, though, there are quite a few stars in the firmament, so navigation will need more than just a lodestar. It’s time, Terrill thinks, for Australia to shift beyond the junior partner mentality that marked the family relationship with Britain and the alliance with the US:

Australian realism should hold in check those on the right who mistakenly think Westerners can bring democracy to China. Australian realism should also resist those on the left who would ditch ANZUS for the Middle Kingdom. Australia is too important to define itself in terms of one great power, rising, falling, or in between. No need, no possibility, no benefit in having a single star illumine our way.

Professor Ross Terrill

For more of the Professor’s clear-headed thinking, I’d point you to this interview I did with him while he’s spending some time talking, thinking and writing at ASPI.

The conversation starts with the young man who wanted to taste China as ‘forbidden fruit’ in 1964, in the days when Canberra had no diplomatic relations with Beijing. Terrill sets out this journey at the start of his book The Australians, a work which sits on my shelf beside one of the foundational texts on Australia’s Asian future, Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country. Thoughts carried by clear words always flow further, and Terrill, like Horne, is a thinker who writes wonderfully. The Professor’s take on Oz in his two editions of The Australians (1987 and 2000) is sunnier than Horne.

Terrill argues that Australia entered the 21st century as a far less conflicted country than the one he (and Horne) knew in the 1950s. He sees Australia having a better sense of its capacities and its ability to open itself to both globalisation and Asia. And, in a wonderful phrase, Terrill sees a country that seems to have some balance between its idea of a ‘fair go’ and the need to ‘have a go’—the strength of Australian institutions married to the adaptability of its people. His conclusion on all this is to find an analogy not with China, but with Japan:

Australia will continue its steps into the Asian orbit. It has been going on for decades. Yet it may never be total. Australia, like Japan in a different way, hangs at a tangent to the nearest region. It may over a long period become to Asia what Japan is to the West—the most Asian nation of the West, as Japan is the most Western nation of the East. Eventually, if not in my lifetime, Australia will draw, as Japan draws, great dynamism from this dualism. Indeed it is morning for Australian civilisation.

He sees Australia’s entry into Asia as an almost unwitting process for many Australians. It isn’t a future that can be too closely planned. Not least because of the big questions that must still be answered; such as: ‘Is Asia waiting for an enemy to emerge or learning to live without an enemy’?

When the interview shifts from Australia’s present to China’s future, my questions were shaped by Terrill’s book, The New Chinese Empire, and his view that the Communist dynasty will founder on its own contradictions: ‘One day the Communist regime in Beijing will pass away, in part for the reasons Suharto fell, in part for the reasons the Soviet Union collapsed, and we should be prepared, in concert with our America, Japanese, Korean and other friends, for the dangers and opportunities of that moment… The 21st century seems likely to be less kind to dictatorship than was the 20th century’.

The 50-50 division in the Terrill mind on the future of the passing of the Communist Empire is whether it will be by collapse or evolution. The shining moment in a gem of a conversation comes in the final answer of the interview when Terrill reflects on how China formed and shaped his own life as an Australian:

China is a great laboratory of the human experience. I didn’t know anything about it and as a young man I discovered it: then a quarter of the world’s population and it is still more than a fifth. And they’re almost everything that we are not. They are old and we are new. They are huge in population and we are small. They are very family orientated; they are not as individualistic as Australians and Americans. But there is a fascination in confronting difference. Just as learning another language teaches you a great deal about your own language. China is a mirror and sometimes it is a problem that China is a mirror because people are not discovering China but they are discovering themselves.

Listen to Ross Terrill as he goes on to contemplate the starting point and mirror effect of China on Richard Nixon, on his former teacher, Henry Kissinger, and on Gough Whitlam. And listen to Ross Terrill, above all, to enjoy a tour of the mind of one of Australia’s great Asia hands.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user DragonWoman.