It has been rather well-established that (some) Asians were in contact with Australia before European colonialism, possibly even centuries before. Yet the awareness of Australia didn't seem to spread across the rest of Asia.
Here are some choice quotes from Wikipedia to summarise the matter, with important bits in bold:
The Austronesian Makassar people from the region of Sulawesi (modern-day Indonesia) began visiting the coast of northern Australia sometime around the early to middle 1700s, first in the Kimberley region, and some decades later in Arnhem Land.
They were men who collected and processed trepang (also known as sea cucumber), a marine invertebrate prized for its culinary value generally and for its medicinal properties in Chinese markets.
Trepanging fleets began to visit the northern coasts of Australia from Makassar in southern Sulawesi, Indonesia, from at least 1720 and possibly earlier. Campbell Macknight's classic study of the Makassan trepang industry accepts the start of the industry as about 1720, with the earliest recorded trepang voyage made in 1751. But Regina Ganter of Griffith University notes that a Sulawesi historian suggests a commencement date for the industry of about 1640. Ganter also notes that for some anthropologists, the extensive influence of the trepang industry on the Yolngu people suggests a longer period of contact. Arnhem Land Aboriginal rock art, recorded by archaeologists in 2008, appears to provide further evidence of Makassan contact in the mid-1600s. Based on radiocarbon dating for apparent prau (boat) designs in Aboriginal rock art, some scholars have proposed contact from as early as the 1500s.
The book Islam Dreaming also mentions that the link with the Chinese markets was rather direct:
Using the winds of the north-west monsoon to sail their boats (called perahu), the Makassan fishermen made seasonal voyages to the northern Australian coast in search of trepang, a kind of sea slug, variously known as bêche-de-mer or sea cucumber. In December each year a fleet of up to fifty or more vessels would make the journey to either the northern shores of Arnhem Land, known to the Asian visitors as Marege, or the beaches on the Kimberley coast, which they called Kayu Jawa.3 The Arnhem Land trepanging area extended from Melville Island east to the Gulf of Carpentaria, usually reaching the Sir Edward Pellew Group, more than 1100 kilometres to the south-east.4 The Kimberley trepanging sites stretched south-west from Napier Broome Bay to Cape Leveque.5 Approximately four months later, with the south-east winds behind them, the fishermen returned to Makassar with their cargo of trepang. There they traded it with Chinese merchants, who considered it a great delicacy for its culinary, medicinal and aphrodisiacal qualities.
Several things strike me as interesting:
- These were deliberate, ongoing voyages to Australia over a long period of time. There were semi-permanent settlements and plenty of interactions (peaceful and otherwise) with the local inhabitants. So not something sporadic.
- The Makassans traded directly with Chinese merchants. So not a several-degrees-of-separation scenario.
- Makassar was a major port city in Sulawesi and part of the VOC. So not an obscure location to begin with.
- East Asians were very aware of places outside their immediate surroundings. For example, the Han Dynasty knew of the Roman Empire through indirect trade links, which they called "Daqin". So they weren't incurious about such things.
And yet, as far as I can tell, the Chinese themselves and other Asians never picked up any awareness of Australia's existence. There's no unambiguous evidence that any Asians other than Makassans attained any awareness, mention or name for Australia or its inhabitants at that time. The Makassans called the Arnhem Land region "Marege" and it seems this name and concept never transferred to any other culture even with thousands of traders over several centuries to such a big and well-connected place like China. It wasn't until European colonialism that knowledge of Australia became unambiguously mainstream across China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, etc.
How did Asian civilisations as a whole somehow not know of Australia's existence, despite regularly trading with people who constantly voyaged there?