A New Australia-China Agenda

THE AUSTRALIAN Centre on China in the World (CIW) engages with the public and policy discussion of relations with the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese world more broadly. A New Australia-China Agenda: Experts on the Australia-China Relationship edited by Geremie R Barmé and Ryan Manuel is our contribution to the important election year of 2013 and to the ongoing consideration of the bilateral relationship in 2014 and beyond.

On Tuesday 28 October 2014, A New Australia-China Agenda was launched at Parliament House in Canberra. The Hon. Andrew Leigh MP and Senator Dean Smith both spoke on the occasion (Andrew Leigh’s speech is available here and a YouTube record of the launch can be found here). The full text of the book can be downloaded here. For PDF versions of the individual chapters, see here. The following is an edited excerpt from the Foreword of the book by Geremie R Barmé and Ryan Manuel.


The Australia-China relationship touches on virtually every aspect of our national life. 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.

Australia-China exchanges are also profoundly influenced by regional and bilateral relationships. Australia and China trade in goods as well as culture, politics and people, ideas and education, community and personalities.

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 wealth, 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.

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.’

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. [The material related to Douglas Copland and CP FitzGerald here 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.]

A founding principle of the Australian Centre on China in the World is encapsulated in the ancient Chinese term zhengyou 諍Š友, that is to be a principled and frank interlocutor with those in positions of authority and power, be they in the intellectual or 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. In April 2008, when the then-prime minister Kevin Rudd spoke to an audience at Peking University, the term zhengyou allowed him to address international concerns. Rudd elaborated on the term 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’. [‘Tony Abbott lauds wealth and friendship in speech at business forum in China’, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 2014.]

With the release of this book, we celebrate ANU’s history of engagement both with contemporary Chinese realities and with Australian politics while cleaving still to an uncompromisingly independent scholarship. We are mindful of the responsibilities of engagé academics and of the importance of having specialists who don’t resile from the demands of meaningful scholarship that brings ideas, debates and discussions capable of contributing to building solid long-term policy into the public domain, to help inform and nurture public awareness.