Australia and China: Three Joint Reports on the Bilateral Relationship

In its earliest days, the Australian Centre on China in the World initiated a collaboration with one of China’s leading think tanks, the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). From first contact in late 2009, we emphasized the desire for frank dialogue, not a dialogue premised on talking past each other, but rather to be in exchange with each other. We were thinking of the kind of frankness essayed by [the former Prime Minister] Kevin Rudd in April 2008 when, during an address to students at Peking University, he spoke of the particular amity displayed by a zhengyou ( 諍友/诤友), ‘a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship.’ Elsewhere zhengyou has been described as ‘an empathetic and engaged friend who can disagree, a trusted interlocutor, a principled partner in understanding.’

At a number of informal discussions and formal workshops in China and Australia during 2010-2011, our Centre discussed the possibility of collaboration with CICIR. We formed a writing group consisting of both CICIR and CIW colleagues that took upon itself the task of drafting an initial report on the ‘state of the relationship’ between Australia and the People’s Republic of China.

We chose to work with CICIR because it is one of the leading Chinese foreign policy think tanks and because, due to its institutional linkages, it has access to the highest levels of the Chinese government. As a national centre working on China we at CIW intend for the CIW-CICIR Report to have relevance to policy on both sides; it is deliberately designed to be part of a bilateral discussion that is conducted at both official and non-official levels. Careful and gradual conversation over many months has produced a unique document on the relationship, distinct from all other examples of government, business, defence and journalistic stock-taking.

Geremie R Barmé
Founding Director
Australian Centre on China in the World

Excerpts from the Introductions to the 2012 Report

From Geremie R Barmé, Director CIW, Introduction

This CIW-CICIR Report was jointly prepared by a research institution in Canberra and a government-linked think tank in Beijing. We have throughout been aware that the nature and composition of our writing teams reflect different institutional realities. The collaboration, robust and fruitful, also reflects the nature of our two societies and polities. I would suggest that the process of preparing the report has been at least as significant as the actual report itself. The serial rounds of discussions between Australian and Chinese colleagues were forthright and at times hard-hitting, and the process itself has had an impact on both sides.

On the Australian side the report reflects views freely arrived at by CIW. Yet we involved senior Australian public servants in the early rounds of discussions, in order to ensure our endeavour was relevant to Australia’s policies, and to assure our Chinese partners of the seriousness with which we approached the project. We also shared drafts of our material with academic colleagues and members of the business community.

The report itself makes clear that it is an overview designed to identify common ground and common interests that can form the basis for more detailed and specific projects. Given the differing realities of our two countries it is significant that we have been able to identify so much common ground, without in any way trying to skirt or disguise areas where our perspectives do not align, or where we disagree. We were also particularly mindful of the importance of articulating clearly the areas of disjuncture and friction, as well as offering shared suggestions about how these may be recognized and, perhaps, addressed.

From Cui Liru, President of CICIR, Introduction

In recent times our two countries have been mutually supportive and, following our relative success in weathering the Global Financial Crisis, we have entered a new stage in the history of our relationship. The greatest challenge that we both now face is how to build further on the relationship, how to bring greater maturity and strategic vision to it and how to develop mechanisms to ensure it is more efficacious, more creative and more regionally and globally constructive, in particular at the present crucial juncture when the world is experiencing dramatic change, transformation and re-alignment.

In essence the question is: how will both sides overcome the ‘dual disconnect’ brought about by the pace of change?

The first is a new disjuncture: one between our social and economic relationship on the one hand, and our strategic relationship on the other, where the latter has failed to reflect the dramatic developments in the former. This implies that the longstanding model for the relationship, of which economic complementarity has formed the cornerstone, no longer suffices. How to build a multi-faceted relationship based on developing mutual reliance in the cultural and social spheres, has become a salient question requiring a response.

The second disjuncture is that between our current strategic bilateral relationship and the fast-paced structural transformations occurring in the Asia-Pacific region.

The rise of new great powers, especially China, the return of the United States to Asia and the Pacific, combined with the increased speed with which the global centre of gravity is shifting towards our region, has resulted in a regional transformation. It is a transformation that features an increase both in strategic comfort and in strategic abrasion. Adjustment of the China-Australia strategic relationship will be influenced by this structural transformation, while at the same time itself influencing it. But the strategic relationship between our two countries is clearly lagging behind the changes in the overall strategic situation in Asia and the Pacific. It is for this reason that it is a matter of pressing urgency as to how our two countries develop new forms of collaboration in the strategically complex environment of Asia and the Pacific so that the shift of global gravity will be more assured, enhancing thereby the steadier construction of a harmonious Asia-Pacific.

It is in consideration of this that the collaboration between the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) and the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) was born. Over the past three decades the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations have developed the study of Australia and in the process CICIR has established numerous academic exchanges. With the creation of a bold, new enterprise such as the Australian Centre on China in the World it is only natural that CIW would become one of the newest and most important collaborators for our Australia specialists.

This report is the result of a collaborative endeavour over the past two years. It offers one of the few overviews of the China-Australia relationship as a whole. It differs from political or economic reports in that it features the observations and analysis of researchers on both sides. This report does not shy away from differences of perspective, but attempts rather on the basis of facts to account objectively for the views on both sides, aiming to present a ‘realistic portrait’ of the relationship between China and Australia.

The report offers an overall assessment of the internal and external situation in both countries and from this basis it looks to the future as well as offering some in-principle suggestions. Objectively speaking, this report is professional, considered and practical. It is the product of the dedication, confidence, candour and flexibility of researchers on both sides. It is the outcome of an at times fraught process during which its authors overcame disputation, frustrations and various conundrums.

I would point out that this report is an initial experiment in how to develop a new form of cooperation. Not surprisingly it has numerous limitations that require the further dedicated collaboration of researchers on both sides.

I sincerely hope that in a year that marks the fortieth anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Australia, this report will be a positive contribution to the development of the relationship between our two countries.