A New Australia-China Agenda: Foreword

The Australia-China relationship touches on virtually every aspect of our national life. Australia and China trade in goods as well as in culture, politics and people, ideas and education, community and personalities. A mature and beneficial engagement of such breadth and depth requires the leadership and support of government at all levels, as well as public stewardship, media understanding, educational enhancement, and the strategic involvement of the business community.

In the lead up to the September 2013 Federal Election, the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) invited specialists working on various aspects of the Australia-China relationship to contribute essays to a project titled A New Australia-China Agenda. Published first on-line prior to the election,[1] the selected policy papers and essays, revised and produced here in book form, aimed at offering the incoming government policy suggestions as well as bringing ideas of pressing contemporary interest that could contribute to the bilateral relationship to the attention of the public and the media, politicians and specialists.

This project was suggested to us by Professor Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist of Australia and former Vice-Chancellor of The Australian National University (2001-2011). At ANU Professor Chubb supported strong academic understandings of and exchanges with China. Our Australian Centre on China in the World, a 2010 Commonwealth Government–ANU initiative was created with his advocacy and guidance. CIW is a publicly funded research institution that is grounded in the humanities and which creatively embraces the social sciences while also serving the interests of public policy and the broader public in its engagement with contemporary China, be that the People’s Republic or other parts of the global Chinese commonwealth.

The founding Vice-Chancellor of The Australian National University was the noted economist, public servant and diplomat Douglas Copland (1894-1971). Before returning to Canberra to take up his new role in 1948, Copland was one of Australia’s last diplomatic emissaries to the government of the Republic of China and an on-the-ground witness to the last throes of the Pacific War in East Asia and the early months of the renewed civil war between the Nationalist and Communist parties. His time in China, his perspicacity and engagement with leading Chinese political figures, economists and thinkers led Copland to alert Canberra to the doomed American policy of support for the corrupt Nationalist leaders of the Chinese Republic and accurately predict the rise of a new, albeit socialist, China in a series of remarkable dispatches. He foretold that this new country would be of vital importance for Australia’s Asian future.

Copland’s views did not sit comfortably with Canberra, but he pursued his frank advice even when writing to Prime Minister Robert Menzies about the mission of the new institution he would soon run: ‘the establishment and maintenance of academic freedom is more important than the actual research and teaching done inside the walls of a university.’[2]

At the time, the China-based historian CP FitzGerald (1902-1992) commended Copland on his forthright dealings with the politicians and thinkers of China, as well as with the other foreign diplomats and journalists who were witness to the momentous events that not long after would see the establishment of the People’s Republic of China under a Communist Party-led government. As Copland was leaving his diplomatic post FitzGerald praised him for being a ‘candid friend of China’, a kind of true friend that was all too rare.

A founding principle of the Australian Centre on China in the World is encapsulated in the ancient Chinese term zhengyou 诤友, that is to be a principled and frank interlocutor with those in positions of authority and power, be they in the intellectual or in the political sphere. We are delighted that the concept of being an unequivocal friend in the Australia-China relationship has now become embedded in official Australian discourse. Zhengyou allowed the then-prime minister Kevin Rudd to address international concerns when he spoke to an audience at Peking University in April 2008; he further explicated it in April 2010 when he announced at ANU the establishment of the Australian Centre on China in the World and, more recently, Prime Minister Tony Abbott redeployed the idea when, facing a fractious relationship with the People’s Republic since coming to power, he declared in Beijing in April 2014 that ‘to get rich is indeed glorious – but to be a true friend is sublime’.[3]

We celebrate ANU’s history of engagement both with contemporary Chinese realities and with Australian politics while cleaving still to the standards and demands of independent scholarship. We are mindful too of the responsibilities of engagé academics and the specialists who don’t resile from the demands of academe to bring into the public sphere ideas, debates and discussions that can contribute to building solid long-term policy and nurturing informed public awareness.

There is little argument that the changing and maturing relationship between Australia and China is of pressing importance, not merely to business and political cognoscenti but to people involved in nearly every field of endeavor. As never before it matters to Australians how best to analyse and describe the contemporary Chinese world and to think of ways of dealing with it, be it for economic weal, regional security, or indeed the global environment.

We are long beyond finding comfort in nostrums about the special nature or excellent quality of ‘Australia-China relations’; such tired platitudes fail to encompass the many fields in which this country requires insightful expertise. As we gathered the contributions of former diplomats, business people, cultural figures, educators, economists and entrepreneurs as part of this New Agenda project, we also reached out to those for whom the importance of the bilateral relationship will only grow with the passage of years: the young.

In their respective contributions to New Agenda David Walker and Stephen Fitzgerald both note the long years of national bilateral oscillation between apathy and engagement with China. Apathy is an inevitable part of the tyranny of complacency that holds sway over the national psyche, but engagement does not have to be the glum burden that is so often feared. New voices are finding their pitch within the national conversation and we are delighted that this modest project has, in some small part, contributed to that. One of our ‘new voices’, Thomas Williams, is an advisor to the government’s New Colombo Plan; the original plan was influenced by yet another of ANU’s founding fathers, Frederic Eggleston (1875-1954), Douglas Copland’s predecessor as Australia’s representative to the Republic of China.

Of vital importance is the need to be mindful of (and to understand) conversations unfolding in China itself. We need to open ourselves to the numerous, often hidden, worlds of contention in which Chinese thinkers and strategists attempt to outline their own thoughts, plans and goals. The essays in this volume by Chinese scholars, including an Australia-focussed group at the prestigious Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a think tank reporting directly to the highest levels of China’s state and party leadership, are valuable contributions to Australia’s understanding of what China wants. These cannot be reduced to such caricatures as those authored by the editors of Global Times in August 2014, at the time of the Clive Palmer fiasco over China, who dismissed our bilateral realities with a line: ‘Australia is a remote business partner, and a place where the Chinese can take a trip and learn some English’.[4]

The present volume is a polyphonic collection of expert ideas and suggestions that we hope will be part of the unfolding Australia-China discussion. Creating this kind of conversation – and, indeed, maintaining the relationship – also requires determined, long-term public leadership and clear-eyed media involvement. It requires the public to appreciate what its political representatives think about the Australia-China relationship, to understand where its leaders and their advisers think the relationship should or could be directed, and to have information regarding what should or should not be done to make this work for Australia, China and the region. In this sense, there are many chapters still to be written in any Australia-China agenda; we hope that you will take the essays here as a starting point.

Geremie R Barmé
Australian Centre on China in the World

Ryan Manuel
Strategic Research Fellow (Australia-China)
Australian Centre on China in the World


We are deeply grateful to Professor Ian Chubb for his suggestion to launch this project, to Ryan Manuel for developing the New Voices Project and organising the judges’ panel and for his translation and editorial work on this book; also to Lindy Allen for her copy-editing and to Markuz Wernli for his thoughtful layout and design work.



1. A New Australia-China Agenda, online at: http://aus.thechinastory.org/the-australia-china-story/

2. The material related to Douglas Copland, Frederic Eggleston and CP FitzGerald in this essay is based on the archival research of William Sima. See his China & ANU  Diplomats, Adventurers, Scholars, Canberra: Australian Centre on China in the World, forthcoming 2015.

3. ‘Tony Abbott lauds wealth and friendship in speech at business forum in China’, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 2014.

4. ‘Clive Palmer’s tirade cannot be ignored’, Global Times, 20 August 2014.