In “History Hasn’t Ended”, Allan Gyngell proposes that “there is no Australian future in which China will not be central”. This means, he says, that “we have to manage a relationship with a country so different in its language, culture, history and values” and “understand China in all its complexity” in order to “engage with it as it is”. Just a couple of lines later, he points out our shortcomings that make this approach difficult: serious national inadequacies in China experience, socio-political expertise and language proficiency. Gyngell does not aim, in his essay, to elaborate on solutions to these. But I am concerned that he does not acknowledge that the critical base for any genuinely expert knowledge and deep understanding of China, and for developing the resilient relationships he suggests we need, must be a solid percentage of Australians proficient in Chinese.
The future Gyngell advocates for Australia requires being able to communicate, cooperate and compete internationally in a China-centred region. To do this, we must be able to independently source and judge information from China that is central to our interests. In order to build strong, loyal partnerships, Australian government agencies, companies, educational and cultural bodies, small businesses and hospitality organisations all need to be informed of the other party’s needs and preferences and of its social and political environment. There are very clear limitations if we can only conduct most of our engagement with China by relying on English.