How Australian organisations and individuals understand and engage with China will continue to be critical for our future prosperity. China is home to the world’s largest population and will be home to the world’s largest economy before 2030. Look at the @LowyInstitute Power Index, check out the ‘Future Trends/economic size 2030’ and see what happens.

With more than 160 cities greater than one million people (and 6 with over 10 million), the Chinese government, understandably, has a strong focus on food security, infrastructure development and maintaining stability. The extraordinary growth of the Chinese economy has lifted 800 million out of poverty since 1978. The biggest impact on development outcomes has been such rapid economic expansion.  Source: World Bank

China is engaging in the world in new ways. For example, the massive Chinese ‘One Belt, One Road’ infrastructure initiative began with the aim of linking China with Europe both overland and by sea. This has now become a broader approach called the ‘Belt & Road Initiative’ to Chinese economic development and foreign investment, spanning over 65 countries and covering 62 percent of the world population, 31 percent of its GDP, and 40 percent of global land area (The Diplomat). The initiative will contribute to China’s economic position in the world, ensure deep interconnectivity with the countries surrounding China, and increase the availability of food and resources to a rapidly growing middle class.

In recent months, the debate about Australia’s China engagement has reached new prominence, and is having implications in the Australia China relationship. Views vary wildly from those of Clive Hamilton, the author of ‘Silent Invasion’, to Geoff Raby, Australia’s former Ambassador and now Business consultant who is a strong advocate of business engagement and recently highly critical of Australia’s approach. Australia is now highly dependent on China in many ways – our 3rd largest export is international education and our largest international student intake is from China. China describes itself as a ‘capitalist economy with socialist characteristics’. In China, freedom of speech is curtailed, and google, gmail, facebook and other Western social media platforms are blocked at the border.

Australia cannot rely on legacy ways of thinking or engaging with the world to guide us into this new era. We must understand these new realities. This doesn’t mean we need to agree with, or modify all of our ways of doing or being in the world. What it does mean, is that for the security and stability of our future, we need to rigorously engage with the questions this poses, be clear on who we are, and define our future direction in a way which leverages our unique strengths and capacities as a nation. Linda Jacobsen and her team China Matters have made a solid case to argue for a more coherent narrative. Australians know that China is important to Australia, but many do not have a nuanced understanding of the reasons why nor do they fully appreciate the risks and opportunities involved in relations with China.

One of Australia’s strengths is its soft power. Soft power is defined as “Having the ability to influence the behaviour or thinking of others through the power of attraction and ideas” in the Government’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. Australia’s democracy, rule of law, strong economy, quality education, cutting-edge science, multiculturalism and environmental protections are all sources of influence.

China is investing enormously in developing national capability and soft power in engaging across cultures. It’s extraordinary the scale of commitment to the development of global capability being demonstrated in China. Look at Arabic for example – check out China Global TV in Arabic, and listen to why Chinese students think it’s worth studying the language.  In Australia meanwhile, our global capability could do with some more focus. Although we do have a large multicultural population and one in five Australians speak a language other than English at home, only 8 percent of Year 12 students in NSW study a language at all, and more study Latin than Mandarin!

As understanding of China’s importance to Australia grows, this important area of our foreign policy, business and soft power engagement will gain far more prominence. How we negotiate these issues will define our future.

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