Businesses changing tune on Australia–China relations
18 Feb 2021|

Like a Jim’s Mowing franchise owner watching a neighbour lay synthetic grass, many Australian business leaders with multiple lines of dependency on Chinese money have looked on with disdain and disappointment as the bilateral relationship has deteriorated beyond recognition in recent years.

It has taken overt bullying from Beijing over a long period for most to realise that trade sanctions against Australia are symptomatic of a deeper problem that is not going away, and that there’s very little short of total capitulation that our political leaders can do to get back on China’s good side.

Now, in light of more genuine concern about Beijing’s worldview and the prospect of the global power balance shifting decisively in China’s favour, some of the negative energy corporate Australia had stored up over Canberra’s perceived mishandling of the bilateral relationship is being directed to more constructive ends.

This is good news on several fronts.

That our business leaders are working hard alongside government to reassess the strategic risks of the Australia–China trade relationship, including the costs and complexities of diversifying our China-centric export and supply chains, signals a need, if not a desire, to act with more unity of purpose on China than we have done in the past.

That we are starting to see some Australian business elites publicly denounce China’s social-control practices, including the recent criticism by mining magnate Andrew Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation of China’s mistreatment of its Uyghur minority population in Xinjiang province, signals a recognition of the collective responsibility to more appropriately balance economic and national security considerations.

That you only see the term ‘hawks’ used these days in narrowly focused articles written by big-business types claiming to have come up with the one ‘serious’ proposal for mending the bilateral relationship points to a maturity in our public discourse that is long overdue.

Taken together, these developments are important for what they say about our capacity to adapt to changing circumstances.

The message is this: we are collectively worried about China’s nationalist rhetoric and efforts to permanently reshape the strategic landscape of the region. So much so that the fragmentation along economic and national security lines that has long allowed Beijing to frame situations in ways that distort our decisions and prevent us from developing a broad consensus on critical issues is no longer the defining feature of Australian politics that it once was.

It is easy to forget how far we have come with all of this.

Adopting a ‘conciliatory line’ on China used to mean avoiding issues that might upset Beijing and thus potentially jeopardise our economic and trade ties. Now it means standing up for our national interests in ways that are not needlessly combative or provocative.

The notion that Australian business leaders could ever be reluctant to engage in public debate about China for fear of being dismissed as apologists was simply unimaginable five years ago, when the voices of those worried about over-reliance on China were being systematically drowned out.

But here we are, by and large all in furious agreement that lacking a commitment to consistency on China is a luxury we can no longer afford and that there is no alternative to protecting Australia’s sovereignty, even if we disagree on the methods for doing so.

Closer alignment between Australian policymakers and business leaders is an overwhelmingly good thing for Australia. The question now is can it be sustained over time.