Anti-China rhetoric threatens thriving technology partnerships with China

Sep 25, 2023
Technology partnerships hand shake.

Australia’s existing relationships and collaborations with China give Australian Industry and consumers a head start in the cost-effective use of some of the most important technologies of the future, including those vital to achieving net zero emissions. Most countries would give anything to be at the forefront of such developments, but Australian University researchers are already there, working very closely with many key people, institutions, and industries in China. But much of the current anti-China rhetoric is ill-informed and is threatening to demolish these productive and well-established links with China.

We feel that this is driven by shallow commentary potentially very damaging to both the short and long-term interests of Australia. Much public commentary on China concentrates on differences without considering the enormous benefits. We hope to restore some balance to discussions by outlining here some of the very great advantages gained by past collaborations and potential for even greater gains in the future. We do not wish to minimise the sometimes very great differences between the two countries, but we believe that constructive engagement without appeasement is possible, and indeed essential, for the future benefit of both China and Australia, and especially Australia.

The authors of this article have several decades of experiences in research, education and industry collaborations with China. We do not claim to be specialists in international relationships; our comments are based on our own interactions with China, and in the case of one of the authors, Professor Dou, being born and educated in China before becoming an Australian citizen. Nevertheless, we agree with David Brophy’s comments in his book ‘China panic- Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering’. He states: ‘The array of questions that China raises for Australia today is daunting, far too diverse for anyone to claim expertise in them all. I’ve written my book not because these questions require a specialist, but because they’re too important to leave to the specialists.’

In 1972 then opposition leader Gough Whitlam, with great leadership, vision and courage normalised Australia’s relationship with China. This marked a remarkable moment in Australian history and laid a solid foundation for the relationship between the two countries which has grown over the past five decades. The Whitlam-led collaboration was not a temporary aberration; the strong collaboration between Australia and China continued under Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, and Julia Gillard to Tony Abbott. For example, Tony Abbott, in an address to the Lowy Institute in Nov 2019, stated: ‘As prime minister, I routinely congratulated the Chinese government and people on lifting a half a billion people from the third world to the middle class in scarcely a generation, the greatest and fastest advance in human well-being in all history … I acknowledged that the rise of China had been good for the world, not just for the Chinese, with Australian exports of coal, iron and gas giving us sustained prosperity, and China the energy and resource security it craved ….’

However, it is distressing to realise how far and how quickly this very strong relationship has since deteriorated. Surveys by the Lowy Institute show that Australians’ trust in China has plunged to a new low. In their 2018 survey they found 82% of Australians considered China an economic partner and only 12% considered China as a security threat. In contrast, the results of their 2021 survey showed only 34% considered China an economic partner with 63% considering China a security threat. Though later surveys show a slight improvement, how could China, in such a short period of time, have changed from our partner to a threat to Australian security? We believe this result is largely attributed to ongoing one-sided anti-China commentary which does not reflect the full spectrum of a rich and complex relationship.

Though there are major sources of friction between Australia and China there are also great benefits in maintaining collaborations. In the area of education and research not only have Chinese students come to Australia and contributed to the richness of Australia’s research life, but they have also paid Australia substantial fees for the privilege. The total value international students bring to Australia is about $33 Billion a year, one of our largest export earners. About 30% of international students are from China. However, enormous though this revenue is, this is not the main benefit to Australia of collaborating with China.

The long-lasting good relationship with China to date has made a significant positive impact on education, quality and quantity of student intake, researcher exchanges, scientific and industrial collaborations. These collaborations are important for the future and have great potential for delivering sustained economic benefit in the long term when many of our existing exports will no longer be viable. Over the past two decades there have been more than 300 Chinese-Australian academics and scientists promoted to professorial positions in Australia and 20 Chinese-Australian academics and scientists elected to two of Australia’s leading Academies. There are also more than 20 Chinese-Australian academics and scientists who have secured Australian Research Council Federation Fellowships and Laureate Fellowships – amongst the most prestigious and competitive research awards available. Chinese-Australian academics, engineers and scientists around Australia have made major contributions to many internationally respected Australian research centres and institutes. There are examples in areas as diverse as medicine, mining, advanced materials, batteries, electric vehicles, welding, advanced manufacturing with their success often assisted by close collaborations and even financial support from Chinese R&D organisations and Chinese Industry.

Hence there is plenty of compelling evidence that Chinese-Australians who have devoted their lives to Australia have made a significant, measurable contribution to Australia’s research performance, and in turn to the quality of Australian universities. The influence of this world class staff not only improves research quality by assisting Australia’s research and Australian Industry to keep up with and lead the rest of the world, but also ensures that academic staff carrying out teaching are providing their students with the skills they and their Australian employers will need into the future.

It is not surprising that the strong increase in collaboration between Australia and China parallels China’s rapid rise. It would surely have been lazy or ignorant or both for Australia not to engage strongly with such a research power-house in areas so directly affecting our future. China is soon to be the world’s largest economy with innovation and investment capacity and talent pools many times larger than Australia’s. It is evident that Australia potentially has a lot more to gain than to lose through research, teaching and industrial links with China. It is in Australia’s interests to be agile enough to work at the forefront of knowledge, wherever that front might be. Given the rise in China of both the quantity and quality of its technology, which is driving its industry to ever increasing sophistication, and its economy soon be the world’s largest, it is a cause for celebration that China has been very supportive of collaborations with Australian Universities which in turn have built strong and comprehensive links with China.

The world must deal with climate change – a common enemy to all nations regardless of culture, religion, race and governance systems. It is not possible to mitigate climate change without engaging with China’s 1.4 billion population. We must therefore have the vision, wisdom and courage to put aside differences sufficiently to unite all nations and focus all our resources, energy and efforts to conquer this common threat to all. It is not at all controversial to point out that a significant part of our future economy, and world trade generally, will include electric vehicles, renewable energy, energy storage and energy exports. Secretary of State for the USA Antony Blinken has made the point that ‘China is the largest producer and exporter of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, electric vehicles. It holds nearly a third of the world’s renewable energy patents’. China’s determination to make massive moves towards electric vehicles and to move to renewables will be so great as to affect trade and markets and lead to world-wide reduction in prices of vital goods and services. The power, productivity and strength of China will continue to accelerate and could make a major contribution to enhancing Australia’s and the world’s effort to conquer climate change and decarbonise our industries. Australia needs to be a part of this world trade if it is to maintain its economic health.

Universities with decades of experience and thousands of alumni in China have developed substantial and influential networks throughout China. These can play a significant role at being an influence for good within China. Many alumni are now in very senior positions, not only in Universities in China but in Provincial and Central Governments and in Industry. These deep collaborations with China have built a lot of support from many people both within Australia and China for respectful relations and we should not allow this support to be overwhelmed by an unreasonable emphasis on the negative. We believe Australia should consider whether it is better to take a long view and work towards being a long-term influence for good since we have such deep relationships and networks already established. Indeed, drawing on our excellent past relationships and well-established networks within China we may well over time have an influence out of proportion to our country’s size. Such a policy is not extraordinary. Nations large and small (eg Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam) several of which are physically much closer to China and so are potentially more vulnerable and have much more to lose than Australia, as well as our major allies, are not taking confrontational approaches despite having many of our concerns and reservations.

We would like to point out that public insults and bellicose comments from leaders have private and distressing consequences. This behaviour has a human cost and is leading to a toxic environment in Australia. Recent anti-China rhetoric has led to fear amongst our own citizens in the Chinese Australian community. For example, a number of Chinese Australian academics were named and their photos were displayed in a major newspaper after accusations by defector Yonglin Chen, later shown to be false. This puts them and their family members under pressure, as they anxiously worry about what further actions against them might occur. Some have even decided to leave Australia as their career opportunities and future life in Australia, despite their immense past contributions and loyalty to Australia, have become uncertain through no fault of their own. Public statements readily translate to the private domain causing unacceptable behaviour on public transport, in restaurants and shops, on social media, etc. We implore leaders in both Australia and China to take this into account in all their public statements. We suggest that criticisms should be voiced without threatening our engagement with and respect for Chinese people and Australians of Chinese descent.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong observed that China’s rise is a fact of life and needs to be managed in a way that avoids confrontation, if possible. ‘You don’t have to become like them, neither can you hope to make them become like you…. There will be rough spots and you have to deal with that. But deal with them as issues in a partnership which you want to keep going and not issues, which add up to an adversary which you are trying to suppress.’ We suggest that it is possible, and essential, for Australia to stand up to China while simultaneously engaging with China in areas of mutual benefit. Intelligent, courageous and visionary leadership requires much more than just being critical; it must also deliver long term engagement and influence. We live in a world with many cultures, religions and governance systems and the challenge surely is to work out a way to live with this, not by accepting behaviour we find unacceptable, but by working patiently to effect change whilst maintaining relationships. Australia by virtue of its many existing long standing and close relationships with China is in a unique position to achieve this.


Part of our specialist series on China, edited by Jocelyn Chey. See the full series below:

China: Perspectives beyond the mainstream media

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