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Solving Australia’s foreign affairs challenges


Euan Graham on How to Plug Australia’s Knowledge Gap on China


“Australia must develop the intellectual acumen to see the world through China’s leaders’ eyes, in order to manage the relationship on its own terms.”

THE PROBLEM: If Australia wants to understand contemporary China as a foreign policy partner and a strategic actor, we need to proceed from a deeper understanding of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP): its structures, its leaders and its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The CCP calls the shots in China, internally and externally. Unless we understand the Party’s objectives, and how its leaders think and make decisions, our policies are likely to come up short. Australia’s location, its alliance with the United States and its reliance upon China for trade mean that knowledge of the party leadership’s machinations matters more to Australia than Cold War Kremlinology ever did.

The relationship with China is already complex, interweaving economic depth and political turbulence, including instances of CCP-directed interference in Australia’s domestic affairs. The lengthening reach of the PLA into Australia’s environs is bound to bring about more frequent strategic interaction and tension. The conduct of external policy in China is always subordinate to the Party’s geopolitical direction and aims. Australia must develop the intellectual acumen to see the world through China’s leaders’ eyes, in order to manage the relationship on its own terms.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne recently announced a commitment of $44 million to “turbo-charge” Australia’s relationship with China, via a new body, The National Foundation for Australia–China Relations. Its primary focus will apparently be to promote commercial diplomacy. Such a lopsided approach is unlikely to live up to the government’s expectations without a corresponding investment into our understanding of how the CCP conducts China’s business.

Unfortunately, China Studies, as a discipline, is not structured or incentivised to do this in Australia. Expertise on the CCP and PLA is dangerously thin across Australia’s universities, and, to a lesser extent, think tanks. Since the mid-1990s, Australia has lost most of its empirical research expertise on China. Academia is not playing the role it should to raise Canberra’s policy game and elevate the public debate. Universities are also incubators for Australia’s next generation of China experts, who will populate government, business and academia itself.

Australia cannot afford to rely on external sources to supply the expertise needed to develop an informed set of policies towards China. Aspiring to greater self-reliance in defence capability and more “independent” diplomacy is fine in theory. But such aspirations will ring hollow without the concomitant ability to understand the outlook and motivations of China’s ruling elites.

THE PROPOSAL: Australia needs to develop and retain more onshore academic expertise on the elite politics of the CCP and the PLA. The government should explicitly identify this as a knowledge gap for Australian universities to fill. Government and university leaders need to cooperate on long-term planning and investment to meet this requirement. Above all, we need to deconstruct the inner workings of the 89-million-strong CCP.

Critically, the focus of these efforts should be on investing in individuals rather than on setting up new centres. The underperformance of the Australian Centre on China in the World, set up in 2010 at the Australian National University and the recipient of $53 million in federal funding, is a salutary reminder of the potential wastage of the “centre-led” approach. An external review, completed last year, judged that the ANU’s centre was “faltering and cannot be said to be meeting expectations”.

Instead, resources should be invested in funded positions, scholarships and tied research programs to support and incentivise a new generation of China scholars specialising in CCP elite politics, the Party’s influence over foreign policy, the PLA and other designated priority areas, such as cross-Strait relations. More doctoral research should be encouraged, provided there are enough qualified supervisors within academia. The government should be explicit in its riding instructions, but the conduct of research and academic appointments must be left to universities.

The resources should be spread to ensure a pool of expertise across universities and think tanks, to avoid overdependence on any one institution. Given the financial reliance of Australian universities upon China, including within the so-called Group of Eight, a diversified approach makes sense. This could be achieved by creating subject-specific networks that link universities and think tanks, and by selecting institutions that are less susceptible to self-censorship or pressure from pro-Beijing organisations, on or off campus. Unfortunately, academic freedom cannot be taken for granted on topics that are deemed sensitive by the CCP.

Extra government funding will help, but the primary problem is the willingness of government and universities to cooperate in allocating targeted resources. This touches raw nerves, as universities are rightfully protective of their intellectual independence, especially within the humanities. The initiative should extend beyond a generalised commitment to invest in China Studies. The study of Chinese culture, literature and philosophy is perfectly legitimate. Yet the chronic shortfall of China-literate expertise in the political and security fields is now such that it must be addressed head-on, and collaboratively.

WHY IT WILL WORK: Nurturing academic talent isn’t overly costly; it is peanuts in proportion to the general tertiary education spend, and a drop in the ocean of defence procurement. Australia’s political and military expertise on China can be turbo-charged for a fraction of the $44 million the government has recently committed to promoting Australia’s exports to the PRC. Australia is already producing capable China scholars in these fields – the green shoots are there. But these individuals need career incentives, or they will go elsewhere.

This is a sensitive point, but universities should resist the temptation to hire PRC-trained academics as a quick fix to plug the expertise gap on elite politics. PRC-born Australians should of course be welcomed if they have received a liberal education outside of China. What Australia needs is a cohort of homegrown analysts, with the ability to read source material in Mandarin, who are motivated to pursue a career here, whether in academia or in government. Moreover, the China debate is too important to leave exclusively to country experts, some of whom have a vested interest in preserving their access and networks within the PRC. A healthy public discourse requires strategists, linguists, economists, historians and political scientists all to contribute, as each sees the “problem” from a different angle.

This proposal is intended not only as a fillip to better policy-making in Canberra. Academics should be informing the public debate and bridging an unhealthy gap in perception that has opened up on China, especially between those preoccupied with the Party’s predatory and coercive statecraft, and those in business, with a more sanguine attitude towards the number-one trading partner.

Senior officials and diplomats could do more to engage leading scholars on China, including offering regular briefings and providing guidance from the intelligence community on partnership and interference risks. China experts schooled on elite politics and the PLA can contribute directly to government intelligence assessments by challenging or refining key judgements. There is already appetite for this within the Office of National Intelligence, which leads Australia’s official assessments.

Concentrated investment and collaboration between government and academia is needed in order to build a cadre of China experts with the necessary language skills and knowledge to help Australia meet the complex policy challenges ahead. The payoff will be cumulative, not instantaneous. This is a long game – but a crucial one.

THE RESPONSE: The Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, said universities set their own curriculum and research direction and make decisions about hiring staff. He said the government was developing Australia’s China knowledge and had funded the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University “to become a world leading institution for Chinese studies”. “The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is investing in building the Australian government’s capability and knowledge to advance Australia’s foreign policy interests and priorities, including in countries such as China,” he said in a statement.

Universities Australia, which represents thirty-nine universities, said Australian universities have significant expertise and research on China, including its politics, culture and history. It said the federal government was responsible for policy settings for research funding. “Greater public investment to enhance our understanding of our region and expand our national research capacity is always welcome. This is true of many fields with great strategic interest to our nation,” it said in a statement. “Australia’s research funding system is based on competitive grants awarded on recommendations from a process of expert peer review – as it should be – and the framework for this system is set by government.” 


This is the fix from Australian Foreign Affairs 6: Our Sphere of Influence. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.