Austcham West China General Manager Kyri Theos had an opinion article featured in the South China Morning Post this week titled “Australia must rebuild its relationship with China”.
Australia must rebuild its relationship with China
China and Australia are very different nations. Normally we put our differences aside because of the overwhelming economic benefits.
But now we are at a stalemate. China’s investment in Australia has dropped 60%, faster than any other nation.
Recent reports of cyber attacks and political interference in Australia have exacerbated anti-China sentiment. Sentiment already soured by COVID-19, barley tariffs and the politics of Hong Kong.
In China, public opinion towards Australia has also turned negative. Australia’s call for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 was poorly received. It reinforced a widely held view of Australia as a US lackey that has benefited from China’s growth.
China’s economy is reopening and there are now serious challenges for those of us seeking to reignite China-Australia trade.
On the ground at the Australian Chamber of Commerce in West China, the situation is difficult and complex. We are trying to get back to business, but statements at senior levels continue to inflame tensions and strain the relationship.
So how can we sustain a strong economic relationship in a tense political climate?
Australia can look to Japan as an example. Despite deep historical and territorial grievances, Japan has managed to balance its economic relations with China and its strategic ties to the U.S.
Japan provided significant aid to China at the outset of the pandemic, including masks and other PPE. This was warmly welcomed by the Chinese people, who took to Weibo and Wechat to praise the friendship between the two nations.
Diplomatic signals of goodwill can slowly begin to shift the popular narrative within China. This narrative is especially important for a country like Australia. Many of our exports to China are fuelled by discretionary purchases, including tourism, education and food products. A positive view of Australia amongst the Chinese people supports our export industries.
Australia’s competitive strength is its clean natural environment, its high-quality education system and its exceptional quality of life.
These assets are attractive in China and they can produce a unique advantage. They are also a soft form of power that can be the basis of deeper engagement with the Chinese people.
A recent survey ranked Australia as the world’s most desirable study destination. Last year more than 200,000 Chinese students studied in Australia.
This represents a unique opportunity to shape the ideas of the Chinese middle class. A huge and influential population that has a voice in China. Students who study in Australia can return home with new ideas, new perspectives, a totally different world view.
Australia’s influence depends on the relationships these students form with us locals. Relationships at the individual level help us grasp the nuance and realities of life in our respective nations. They also help us recognise our own preconceptions.
If we really want to change the narrative, we must showcase the egalitarian values at the heart of the Australian character. Once it is safe to do so, Australia could extend its proposed travel bubble beyond New Zealand to also encompass China. This would send a signal that Australia wants to move past this tense period towards better relations.
More urgently, China is bracing for wide spreadand severe flooding not seen in decades. Australia has developed significant expertise in flood management through its experience of the 2011 Queensland floods. Offering Australian support and equipment will be interpreted as a gesture of kindness and a signal that the worst of the relationship is behind us. It is also the right thing to do.
Decades of engagement have seen our two nations prosper. Australia should take the lead and seek opportunities to reengage. Both to deepen its influence and safeguard its economic future.
Kyri Theos is General Manager at the Australian Chamber of Commerce in West China.