“I wouldn’t start from here”: Advice on Australia-China relations

Oct 13, 2023
Map of china in hand.

Engaging China: How Australia can lead the way again (Sydney University Press 2023) reviews most aspects of the Australia-China relations and proposes useful ways to develop them for the national benefit. Jointly edited by Jamie Reilly and Jingdong Yuan, it includes contributions from thirteen scholars, journalists and former diplomats, a foreword by former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and a postscript by former Ambassador Stephen FitzGerald. It does not apologise for its advocacy of greater engagement in a productive and secure manner.

Maybe Australia can lead the way, as the book title suggests. That is, maybe Australia can demonstrate to the world that it is possible to work constructively with China even if there are differences of politics, philosophy and social practice. How could that not make the world a better place?

But can we? The famous Irish joke comes to mind, of the tourist who was told, when he asked the way to Dublin, “Well, if I wanted to get to Dublin, I wouldn’t start from here.” In other words, when all aspects of Australia’s relations with China have become securitised – that is, seen through the lens of defence and security concerns – how is it possible to change the mindset and view China as an opportunity and not a threat?

Reilly and Yuan summarise this well in their introductory chapter, describing the relationship as a kind of rudderless boat with “a sense of drift and uncertainty, seeking an elusive anchor and a stable balance between coexistence, cooperation and contestation.” The book comprises three sections. The first concerns diplomatic engagement, Geoff Raby writing from personal experience, Bates Gill warning of the dangers of escalating defence tensions, and Brendon O’Connor, Lloyd Cox and Danny Cooper broadening the discussion by reflecting on the role of US-China relations in shaping Australia’s international policies.

The second section, with contributions by James Laurenceson, Weihuan Zhou, Wei Li and Hans Hendrischke, describes economic and trade issues, problems, opportunities, the potential roles of multilateralism and of foreign direct investment. Glenda Korporaal adds vibrant colour to this picture with vignettes derived from her interviews with Australian companies concerning their business relations with China.

In the third section on media, education, culture and society, Wanning Sun applies the tools of media studies to assess how the China story is framed and presented in the Australian media, inviting the reader to consider the effect of their undoubted bias. Anthony Welch reflects on the significance of research collaborations and student exchanges, both affected by recent health and political events and by cuts in the funding of higher education. Ien Ang concludes with a summary of cultural exchanges over the past half century. She highlights the role of Chinese Australians in the bilateral relationship and how this growing community has been affected by the downturn in political relations and negative press reporting.

Much has been written about the downturn in Australia-China relations, reaching rock bottom in early 2022, as evidenced by warnings by the former Coalition government of the inevitability of war with China in the near future. The tangle of events that brought us to that impasse are canvassed in this book and hardly need to be repeated. They simply bring us back to the unfortunate fact that if we wanted to improve relations with China, it would be better not to start from here. Nevertheless, all the contributors to this book maintain their optimism. They emphasise that progress is possible and offer travel advice for the route ahead.

At the end of each chapter, after they have identified the routes that brought us to this starting point, each offers recommendations to Canberra and Beijing about how we may find a way out of the wilderness. Here are some of their proposals, all eminently sensible and practical:

  • Craft a more independent foreign policy and “de-weaponise” the relationship
  • Improve mutual trust, mitigate security tensions, reset defence ties
  • Identify areas where collaboration is possible
  • Protect economic interests in sustaining viable secure and mutually beneficial trade and investment relations
  • Reactivate the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership
  • Agree to tackle strategic and security challenges including climate change, pandemic prevention, aid projects
  • Reduce regional instability
  • Manage trade and investment risks at systemic level
  • No discrimination against businesses and households with mutually beneficial business engagement
  • Review benefits and challenges of Chinese ODI in Australia and improve environment for investment from China and emerging economies
  • Collaborate on research and exchanges in health care, aged care systems, emission technologies
  • Encourage and support higher education and research engagement
  • Strengthen people to people ties through sports, cultural and youth activities
  • Invite mainstream media to review coverage of China and China relations to identify possible bias and increase accountability
  • Nurture Chinese Australian communities through internal cultural diplomacy so as to counteract alienation
  • Build on the achievements of cultural engagement over the past half century.

It may be that, by following some or hopefully all of these highways and byways, Australia will find a way forward, and will indeed lead the way again.


Read more articles in our China Perspectives series:

China: Perspectives beyond the mainstream media


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