This opinion article by Business Council chief executive Bran Black was published in The Australian on 13 November 2023
Last weekend a contingent of Australian businesses and CEOs arrived in Shanghai for the China International Import Expo and a Business Dialogue with Chinese businesses, accompanying Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit.
In previous years, this would be nothing out of the norm, but those were different times and the Prime Minister’s trip marked a stabilisation of relations.
The importance of these engagements for business relations between our two countries and the opportunities they will create cannot be underplayed, and yet nor can we get ahead of ourselves.
The Prime Minister’s visit signaled that Australian and Chinese businesses play an important role in bilateral relations between both countries, driving job creation and prosperity.
The obvious benchmark in this regard is our enduring relationship with the US, with the business-to-business agenda driving the Prime Minister’s successful visit to Washington DC, a week prior.
On that US trip, Microsoft promised $5 billion to invest in cloud computing, digital training programs and supporting our security agencies in the fight against cyber-crime, showing the role that business needs to play to turn the pomp and ceremony of official visits into real deals, new industries and more jobs.
Both AUKUS and President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) should be seen as game changers in this regard.
While most of the public focus and debate around AUKUS has been on submarines and congressional progress, it is the so-called Pillar Two of this historic agreement that has the potential to drive the most benefits for Australia.
Pillar Two focuses on joint development in future industries and tapping into the potential of Australian businesses and our highly educated workforce with – capabilities such as cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and hypersonics.
As the BCA outlined in its recent paper, Seize the Moment, these are the kind of advanced, high-paying industries and jobs that Australia must create if we want to maintain and improve our standard of living in the decades ahead.
Similarly, by unleashing US$3 trillion worth of investment in clean energy, the IRA provides both opportunities and challenges for Australian business.
Australia has a clear opportunity to become a major global supplier of critical minerals, such as the lithium needed for batteries.
This is something the government has recognised with its recent doubling of loans for miners and processors of critical minerals to $4 billion.
The great challenge in this regard is ensuring the scale of the IRA does not suck investment and talent away from Australia’s own clean energy industries, including planned investments in green hydrogen.
Similarly, our relationship with China presents both challenges and opportunities.
Throughout all the bumps in the road, China has remained Australia’s number one trading partner, with two-way trade continuing to grow to nearly $300 billion last calendar year.
At the BCA Business Dialogue in Shanghai, alongside Australian executives from Graincorp, BHP Cochlear, University of Sydney, HSBC and King & Wood Mallesons, we found relationships with Chinese business leaders were strong, due largely to longstanding personal connections and had withstood both tensions in the diplomatic relationship and COVID-19.
In this regard, the phase of Australia’s diversification to other markets outside China was the right approach to take for the times however it did not mean over that time Australian and Chinese business leaders were disengaged.
And those relations and business opportunities will be strengthened thanks to a joint commitment to hold further China-Australia CEO roundtable meetings.
Business thrives when the ground rules are set by governments and new opportunities can be realised.
This is a pragmatic approach, not one taken blindly.
Australian businesses understand trade with China will not likely return to previous levels, at least in the short to medium term and while this China visit was significant, it does not mean all issues are resolved or the relationship has returned to where it was.
But through business-to-business engagement, recent visits to both the United States and China demonstrate that we can both embed and enhance relationships that translate into jobs and opportunity at home.
After all, the primary purpose of international engagement should be to drive lasting peace which delivers prosperity for all people, with business providing an important link to ongoing stability.