Our great leap backward in China trade ignores China specialists

May 14, 2024
couple toasting with wine glasses when having romantic dinner at home

Last month Prime Minister Albanese cheerfully welcomed the Chinese government’s removal of import duties on Australian wine.

Following numerous government-to-government talks held in Canberra and Beijing over recent months, it was seen as a positive step in a new era of Australia-China relations.

For winemakers, it was merely a small win on the journey back to the trade momentum enjoyed only four years ago.

Back in 2020 Australian wine was valued as the premier foreign brand in China and bilateral trade agreements (such as CHAFTA) ensured that even French, Californian and Chilean brands couldn’t compete.

China had become Australia’s largest export market for a diverse range of goods, diversifying the trade relationship beyond primary industry to consumer products such as beef, fruit and dairy.

Australian exports enjoyed strong brand loyalty in China due to their reliable, high-quality ‘clean and green’ image.

However, a devaluation of the Australia-China relationship by numerous governments has reduced these wins to a range of crushing tariffs.

Where PM Albanese sees progress and increased stability in the government’s ‘patient, calibrated and deliberate’ approach to China, those who’ve built their careers at the coalface of this bilateral relationship see a long, long path ahead.

While Australia was one of the first countries to acknowledge modern China, back in 1971, in recent years there’s been a great leap backward in trade, investment and diplomatic relations.

Despite the advantages of early engagement, generations of well-trained China specialists, a steady increase of Chinese migrants and plenty of Australians living in China as expats, relations continue to develop in fits and starts.

In 2008, it was our neighbour New Zealand that became the first OECD to sign a comprehensive free trade agreement with China.

And it took them merely three years to negotiate the deal – Australia took more than a decade via four Prime Ministers steering five different governments.

Why does Australia continue to flounder, generation after generation, in its relationship with China?

The delegation of ‘business community’ and bilateral representatives that assembled to greet Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Canberra last month provides some clues.

In March, the National President of the Australia China Business Council (ACBC) met with Foreign Ministers Penny Wong and Wang Yi.

At the time, he claimed the purpose of the meeting was to ensure that Australia’s business community had not been ‘left on the sidelines’ of the government dialogue.

What appeared to be missing in the ACBC delegation was the China and the Business part.

From my perspective – as an Aussie with 30 years’ experience in Australia-China relations – that photo opp clearly illustrated a key challenge that Australia will continue to face into the future.

Namely, a persistent inability to utilise its China capable talent. Which, by the way, is considerable.

Unfortunately, none of the folks invited to this state function with our largest trade partner actually represented those who work in the engine room of Australia-China trade and investment.

None were fluent in Mandarin, of Chinese heritage, representative of our four generations of China Studies graduates or under the age of 50.

None had extensive in-country experience on the mainland or worked outside the mining, medical device, legal or financial services sector.

Those invited to join consisted of the same think tank representatives, academics and book authors who have ‘commented’ on the bilateral relationship for decades. Rather than those who have actively built or contributed to it, within the business community in either China or Australia.

Is it any wonder that these apparent experts and insiders – specifically included by the Australian Government – continue to be the same folks that support the myth that Australia ‘lacks knowledge of China’?

If these echo chambers of academia are the company they keep, I can see why they think the country lacks Asia Capability.

The reality of Australia’s China engagement community is far more diverse and inclusive. I know, because I’ve navigated it since 1995. Across a diverse range of sectors. In both English and Mandarin. Within both Australia and China.

While you won’t find us as paid members of the ACBC, it isn’t that difficult to locate us. We’re a well-connected group of expats, migrants, Chinese diaspora, foreign students, business owners, entrepreneurs and community leaders.

And our numbers are increasing. In addition to the thousands of China Studies graduates we’ve produced across four generations, we continue to benefit from Chinese migration.

Mandarin is now the most widely spoken language in Australia after English and 1.4 million residents identify having Chinese ancestry.

Which is great news, if you consider language skills, cultural understanding, guanxi and in-country experience crucial to China engagement expertise.

But so long as ethnicity, age and gender define the ‘experts’, I’m afraid Australia will continue to struggle with its great leap backward.

Australia does not lack knowledge of China – but its tendency to ignore the genuine specialists illustrates an ongoing inability to determine a smart, inclusive, 21st century China policy.


Republished from AUManufacturing, April 16, 2024

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