Why we need to take responsibility for knowing China better

Opinion piece by Peter Varghese AO FAHA and Prof Joseph Lo Bianco AM FAHA. This article was first published in The Australian Financial Review.

Our knowledge of Asian countries is central to our ability successfully to navigate the future. Yet it is extraordinary to discover, through systematic and careful research, that in 2023 Australia’s research-based expertise about the countries of our geographic region is thin.

It is even more dramatic to realise, again through research, that this base of essential knowledge and skills, is becoming more frayed and thinner over time. We have come to realise that as a middle-power nation Australia knows less about the key countries in our region than we need to. This is a national challenge that must be addressed.

A major report from the Australian Academy of the Humanities (AAH) on knowledge capability of our universities in relation to China has just been issued. This unprecedented study highlights the gaps in our preparation for integrating with the region and specifically for sustaining productive relations with China. The focus of the study is China but we can only surmise that a similar national deficit applies to our knowledge preparation for relations with Indonesia and India.

The evidence shows us that Asian expertise is slipping at the worst time: when the region itself is changing, strategic relationships are realigning and economic models are shifting.

These changes suggest that a more multipolar world is emerging. How can we position Australia to navigate the new configuration of our world in the interests of our citizens, economy, security and culture? In our judgement, and backed by the evidence of the AAH, the only effective way is to cultivate the skills and capabilities, in other words, the deep knowledge of our region. The stakes are high and we need a far-sighted vision.

Some of the findings from this research are alarming.

The proven pathway for training Australia’s China experts, Honours in China Studies, is struggling to survive. The report’s extensive consultations found no more than five students graduated with Honours in Chinese studies with language in any one year, 2017 to 2021.

Students are choosing, or being channelled away from critical study of China on its own terms, and towards the study of China as a player in international relations.

And yet, the value and accuracy of our international judgements depends, to a large extent, on how well we understand China’s sense of itself, its power and how this is projected, and its hopes and intentions in the world.

Emerging Australian talent, including many Australians of Chinese heritage, are gravitating towards technical language qualifications, rather than the critical study of China.

The AAH study shows that Australian researchers are prolific publishers on China, but unfortunately, their expertise is not being harnessed at scale to illuminate or guide our way to resolving the dilemmas China presents us.

A deeper understanding of China, including how China sees itself, is critical to our ability to comprehend the dynamics of the multipolar global environment, and specifically the regional arrangements that are emerging.

China is and will likely remain our largest trading partner. It is fair to say that over the past few decades the international system has served Australia well, hence there is no more important an issue for Australian foreign, trade and strategic policy than China’s future place in the emerging global arrangements.

It is important to clarify that to invest heavily in understanding China’s perspectives on history and global affairs, as we advocate, is not to endorse its policies or interpretations of history or contemporary affairs, but rather to acknowledge its presence and achievements. There is no alternative to dealing with China, we cannot wish it away, nor can we pine for a return of global arrangements that preceded its prominence in the world.  Nor can we shoehorn China into our preferred position.

The overriding conclusion must be that Australia needs more and better expertise about China. By investing in better understanding of its society, history, politics and economy, we can inform an independent national capacity to make judgements about what drives China, the character of its system, the durability of its economy and its strategic ambitions.

So how do we turn around our dwindling expertise on China?

Universities and governments between them carry the main responsibility for generating China knowledge. We need to think about the role of universities in creating Chinese expertise. 2023 is a year of reviews – of the higher education sector, the research system, and national research priorities. In this context we should fast-track arrangements to accelerate the generation and deployment of China knowledge.

The Academy of the Humanities’ report focuses on the sharp end of Australia’s China capability: the programs that prepare independent, critical China analysts, and the many Australian researchers who add to national and global knowledge about China. We can redress the problems this research reveals by long-term thinking about capability needs, but we must also shore up current efforts.

Our focus should be on ambitious but achievable aims, bipartisan buy-in, and a coordinated strategic effort from university leaders and their China studies teams. In effect, this calls for a China capability program, and we must work towards parallel programs for other strategically important settings.

Universities and governments must lead this process, partly because the most intensive services-sector relations with China are in education, but business has an important role. A collaborative effort across sectors can significantly improve Australia’s long-term China capability.

Challenges are also opportunities. Here is an opportunity for government, universities and business to engage in tripartite problem solving. If we get that framework right it can be applied to a myriad of national challenges.

About the report

The Australia’s China Knowledge Capability report explores how Australia can best support its national interests by getting to know China better. The research project was funded by a grant from the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations – an Australian government initiative, established in 2020, to strengthen understanding and engagement between Australia and China.

About the Authors

Peter Varghese AO FAHA is Chancellor of the University of Queensland, former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and Chair of the AsiaLink Council.

Professor Joseph Lo Bianco AM FAHA is a Professor of Language and Literacy and University of Melbourne, Past President of the Academy of the Humanities and Chair of the AAH Advisory Committee for the “Australia’s China Knowledge Capability” Report.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Australian Academy of the Humanities recognises Australia’s First Nations Peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and their continuous connection to country, community and culture.