Personal connection at the heart of our relationship with China

20 June 2024

This opinion article by Business Council Chief Executive Bran Black was published in The West Australian on 20 June 2024

Our relationship with China has a profound impact on every Australian’s life, particularly here in WA.

China is our largest trading partner, with three quarters of all our exports to China coming from WA.

That means important jobs and economic growth for WA, to power the national economy.

It follows then, that all efforts must be made — by both governments and businesses — to ensure this is a relationship built on respect and understanding.

As anyone would recognise, this starts with sitting down face-to-face.

This week I hosted the first Australia-China CEO roundtable to occur in seven years, together with China Development Bank.

The BCA brought together 14 of Australia’s most senior business leaders, many from WA, with their Chinese counterparts in Perth to raise shared opportunities.

Together, leaders of Australian businesses such as ANZ, BHP and Rio Tinto met with Chinese counterparts such as Bank of China, CITIC Group and Trina Solar.

We heard valuable, practical advice from senior business figures on ways to strengthen this relationship — from Rob Scott of Wesfarmers on building our recyclable materials industries, to Anthony Bishop of Cochlear on procurement work necessary to deliver hearing implants to more adults in China.

The warmth of the personal relationships between these leaders struck me as particularly notable. After this week they have grown.

Three Chinese ministers also attended a further sign of the value the Chinese placed on this dialogue. Our report on this discussion was then delivered to Premier Li of China and Prime Minister Albanese.

What’s clear is that across all industries the desire for further co-operation and collaboration is strong.

As I reported to the leaders, while China is already our largest trading partner, if this week’s roundtable is anything to go by that partnership still has a long way to grow.

Our business leaders spoke to a range of areas where they are committed to working more closely together and strengthening trading links. One such area was the decarbonisation of our economies.

Our Chinese partners greatly value the resources and research which Australia brings to this challenge. Just as our Australian members greatly value Chinese innovation and manufacturing — and this makes our relationship genuinely complementary.

To capitalise on the opportunities of the energy transition and decarbonisation, we also need highly skilled workforces. More opportunities for industry partnership and skills exchange with research institutions between China and Australia were a key focus of the roundtable comments.

We also heard a range of recommendations related to better-aligned regulation.

There are, of course, limits to what the most well-intentioned and conscientious business engagement can achieve.

But more conversations, more engagement, and the deepening of person-to-person links will always be a good thing.

As the Prime Minister has noted this week, we must “put dialogue at the centre of Australia’s relationship with China because it is always most effective when we deal directly with each other.”

That is as true in the world of business as it is in the world of statecraft.

While it is for governments to set the terms and tone of trading relationships, the business community is what brings those relationships to life.

And a continued focus on strengthening existing agreements, market access, supply chains and tariff reduction will contribute to our shared prosperity.

What will matter most is how we nurture the person-to-person aspects of this relationship. The Australia-China CEO roundtable was part of that process.

What happened there helps set the tone for business collaboration across our two economies. It sends a signal that commerce between Australia and China is welcome and to be encouraged.

And it confirms that China’s and Australia’s most senior business leaders value the opportunity to engage with each other even further.

The economics of our relationship are profound. However, there is one fact which I think speaks to the real nature of our relationship more than any other — that is that the second most spoken language in Australia is Mandarin.

This fact goes to the very heart of why all effort must be invested in a prosperous relationship between our nations, including at a personal level between business leaders.

And so, we need to continue bringing our business leaders together, to complement the work of our governments, with long-lasting personal connections.

Our hope is to reconvene in China next year as a sign of confidence in the growing stability of our relationship.


Latest news

Opinion articles

Opinion articles

Opinion articles