Time to Put in Hard Yards for China

The Australian Financial Review
12 September 2012

By Tony Shepherd
President, Business Council of Australia

The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper should attach a high priority to what governments can achieve by working with the private sector to deepen our links with Asia in a co-ordinated and effective way.

By forging relationships in Asia, and engaging new and growing markets, Australian businesses are taking steps that benefit the nation’s economy.

In looking to the future of our relationship with China, we face a swiftly changing and competitive landscape. Competitors are emerging from around the world for our export markets. We cannot expect what has worked in the past to work in the future.

The most important step is for governments, businesses and leaders from the wider community to agree on priorities for the direction of our relationship. The basis of this could be drawn from the joint Australia–China statement released by both governments when Vice-Premier Li Keqiang visited Australia in 2009.

We need to give effect to mutual benefits and shared interests outlined in the statement through direct and continuing engagement with China, whether this is between governments, business enterprises, educational and cultural institutions, or a combination of these sectors.

I took part in early discussions held in China recently to establish a Sino-Australia Business Dialogue. For business leaders, this is an opportunity to complement the government’s engagement by:

  • encouraging new flows of two-way investment
  • reducing barriers to trade in new areas
  • developing ideas for co-operation in important areas such as infrastructure
  • contributing to deliberations on geopolitical and security issues.

The dialogue has made a good start. But none of this will matter if we don’t also boost our own competitiveness and productivity – and change the Australian mindset.

Australia needs to demonstrate to China and the rest of the region that we are open to increased levels of investment and trade, and that we genuinely want to realise mutual benefits. We need to be consistent in the messages we send to investors. If we are not, they may go elsewhere.

The publication last week of the report of the Asialink Taskforce for an Asia Capable Workforce recommended ways to improve our understanding of Asian cultures and the capabilities we need to succeed. We also need to support Chinese and other businesses in Asia to understand what is required in Australia’s business environment.

This year is the 40th anniversary of modern diplomatic relations with China. The relationship has come a long way in the interests of both nations, but there are no guarantees for the next 40 years. We have to keep working on it.