What should Australian business do about its waning influence on Australia-PRC relations? (China Matters 29 July, 2020)

Jul 31, 2020

Australian business leaders have been overly cautious in their response to the crisis in Australia’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Amidst a rising tide of hostility toward the PRC, they are largely silent or their words are being drowned out by louder voices. Australian business knows it will suffer if there is a long-term freeze in the relationship with the PRC. But unless it speaks more assertively about the benefits of Australia/PRC trade, this will be the outcome.

President Xi Jinping and his “wolf warrior” diplomats make it challenging for even the most moderate of Australian voices to call for sensible engagement with the PRC. The aggressive nationalism on display in Hong Kong, on the India/PRC border, in Xinjiang and in the South China Sea signal that the PRC leadership regards global approval as less important than issues key to the domestic legitimacy of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Canberra is uncomfortably wedged between an erratic US ally and a more assertive trade and investment partner.

The PRC may be a diplomatic challenge, but Australian business can ill-afford to stand silent and leave others to shape a new, more hostile approach to dealing with our most critical trade and investment partner. A better balance between security and commercial interests requires that Australian business leaders improve their waning influence on relations with the PRC.

To effectively articulate the interests of business in the Australia-PRC relationship, Australia needs a more proactive China business lobby group and a new or revitalised bilateral business-to-business dialogue. In pressing for an improved trade and investment climate, business should not ignore legitimate security concerns that a more assertive PRC gives rise to.

Business interests are national interests

“Listen to business executives on the specifics of their industry but don’t ever let them set the tone politically for the relationship. Their political judgment is rotten and they generally have no very deep institutional commitment to liberal democratic values”

  • Greg Sheridan, The Australian, 25 October 2019

Media commentators and defence and security analysts do not have a monopoly on the political judgement required to manage relations with the PRC. They simply have a different view. Australian business has the right and the obligation to be heard on the PRC relationship.

Commercial self-interest and the national interest are not mutually exclusive. PRC demand for Australian goods and services remains strong. While our exports of iron ore are most notable, we should not forget the thousands of otherwise unremarkable small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) whose livelihoods depend on the PRC – citrus growers, winemakers, lobster fishermen, beef and dairy farmers, tourism operators, and many more. Their success is hard-won and a key driver of national prosperity.

This is an extract from a China Matters report.

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