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Peering at China through Australian eyes

In the past one week traveling across Australia, wherever I touched — Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne — no matter what my lecture was about — Arab Spring, Central Asia, Afghanistan or Iran — the conversations at some point inevitably veered around to China. How much China’s shadow is lengthening over the Asia-Pacific is probably best viewed from Perth, which is a boom town enjoying unprecedented level of prosperity (second highest per capita income in the world), thanks to China’s insatiable quest for western Australia’s minerals. How elastic is China’s demand for resources is almost an obsessive thought for the western Australian businessman. 

But that is not the only thing going. On the whole, trade ties and investment are deepening. Yesterday a Chinese company bought up 75% of equity stakes in Manassen Foods Australia, which has an enterprise value of 500 million dollars, and the chairman of the Chinese partner Bright Food Group says the leitmotif of the acquisition is to expand the Australian firm’s direct access to the Chinese market and to benefit from Manassen’s distribution network in the Asian market. 
The number of Chinese travelers to Australia increased by 25% to half a million last year who, incidentally, also proved to be the ‘top-spending’ visitors to Australia last year, laying out 3.1 billion dollars. Chinese imports are hurting Australian manufacturers. On Wednesday, Australia’s only solar panel manufacturing plant Silex Solar shut down because Chinese imports flooded the market, driving down costs, and it was hard to compete with the Chinese manufacturers who enjoyed lower wages and government assistance. (Ironically, there has been an unprecedented hike in installations this year to avail of generous Australian government subsidies for renewable energy scheme and China exploited the opportunity!) Needless to say, US vice-president Joseph Biden’s 5-day visit to China is big news in Australia, seeking China’s helping hand for the resuscitation of the American economy. 
Of course, like in India, all this is happening while the strategic pundits of Australia and China continue to spar in their ivory towers. When I was in Sydney, a prominent Chinese scholar Wang Jisi (Dean of the School of International Studies of Beijing University) came to the city on a visit. Wang’s message was that the US is in relative decline and the power balance is tilting toward China but the two countries should realise that rivalry is not in their interests and should take action accordingly or else some kind of a showdown may ensue at some point. Wang stressed that China’s main challenges are going to be domestic ones rather than external, but the Communist Party’s standing will not be affected.
However, while the strategists spar, life moves on. The Australian movie industry is set for a much-needed boost when 33 Postcards, a co-production with China shot on location in Sydney and China will be released in every cinema in China on about 8000 screens on September 2. It tells the story of a Chinese orphan who dreams for 10 years of meeting her Australian sponsor before traveling to Sydney at the age of 16. Hello, is Bollywood listening? 
The Australian perceptions of China are imbued with the same kind of angst as Indian pundits would have about that country’s behaviour at a future date. But Australia is manifestly at greater ease with China than some Indians. (It even allows Chinese businessmen to dabble in real estate development.) 
The business opportunities are constantly being explored. Indeed, there is enormous interest in what is happening in China –ranging from the trivial to the sublime — and a striking difference with the Indian discourse is that the Australian perceptions are direct and not secondhand perceptions borrowed from European or American media. This is understandable, as Australia’s fortunes are probably going to be more tightly linked with China’s economy in the coming period than ever before. Canberra has apparently taken a decision recently in deference to Chinese sensitivities that the prime minister will never again see Dalai Lama if he visits Australia. Imagine, as recently as 5 years ago, some Indian pundits were advocating a ‘quadrilateral alliance’ of US, Japan, Australia and India to ‘contain’ China.

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