China is a critical trading partner for Australia and therefore important for the resuscitation of our pandemic-hit economy. Yet business leaders have a waning influence on the currently strained Australia–PRC relationship.
This is the warning from Michael Clifton, CEO of policy think tank China Matters and a former head of the Australian Trade and Investment Commission’s network in China.
Drowned out by louder voices
“Amidst a rising tide of hostility toward the PRC, they are largely silent or their words are being drowned out by louder voices,” he observes in his latest policy brief newsletter.
“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,” Clifton says.
The 20-year veteran of the Trade and Investment Commission notes the aggressive Chinese nationalism on display in Hong Kong, on the India-PRC border, in Xinjiang and in the South China Sea.
Global approval is less important
All of these situations, he believes, signal that the PRC leadership regards global approval as less important than issues key to the domestic legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party of China.
Canberra, therefore, finds itself uncomfortably wedged between an erratic US ally and an increasingly 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,” Clifton cautions.
“A better balance between security and commercial interests requires that Australian business leaders improve their waning influence on relations with the PRC.”
Pro-active China business lobby group
While agreeing that business should not ignore legitimate security concerns that a more assertive PRC gives rise to, he believes Australia needs a more proactive China business lobby group and a new or revitalised bilateral business-to-business dialogue.
Commercial self-interest and the national interest are not mutually exclusive, Clifton says.
“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.
“[These are] 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.”
Speak without fear of loyalty being impugned
Among his recommendations to increase the influence of the Australian business lobby in the debate, Clifton says business leaders should exercise their right to highlight the importance of the PRC to Australia’s national well-being, and be encouraged to do so without their character or loyalty being impugned.
He has also called for the Australian business community to establish a China business lobby of 4–6 business leaders coordinated by the head of the Business Council of Australia (BCA) China Leadership Group and the Australia China Business Council (ACBC) National President.
“The China business lobby requires stronger collaboration between the BCA and the ACBC and should exercise high-level influence in both Beijing and Canberra,” Clifton argues.