China: Our best tech friend in Asia

James Riley
Editorial Director

The health of the relationship with China is fundamental to the health of the Australian economy. This overwhelming consensus view is not just related to Australia’s resources sector and its integration with China’s production capacity, or to our agricultural production industries.

The relationship is broad and deep and includes a mix of strong social, cultural and, economic links.

Which is why the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll results announced today are so fascinating.

The poll, now in its tenth year, finds Australians are ever more comfortable with China on the one hand – the Poll found China is considered our “best friend in Asia” (with Japan) – despite nearly half believing that China will be a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years.

Our best friend the region today will be in military conflict with us inside two decades? That’s a wild ride.

These mixed views on China underscore a complex relationship, and probably highlights how little Australians know about China. Socially, culturally, and certainly from a business perspective, China is a bit of a mystery to most Australians (and it’s a complete mystery to the Australian tech industry.)

I have argued for a long time that Australia’s technology sector should be forging much closer ties with China, and that there are huge opportunities for Australian companies who seek out Chinese partners.

The well-worn path to Silicon Valley has delivered patchy results for Australian entrepreneurs. It is not the only path, and Chinese capital and Chinese development partners provide a new route for Australian innovators to get to global scale.

Technology trade between the two countries (outside of consumer electronics) is tiny. It is nowhere. But if there is a game-changer for the Australian tech sector, it is China – a market we know so very little about.

So I read the Lowy Institute Poll with huge interest. Not because its results were directly applicable to the local industry or to local startups. But the sentiment it uncovered is revealing.

Here are some the Lowy headlines.

Firstly, when Tony Abbott announced shortly after he had been elected in the presence of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Japan was Australia’s best friend in Asia, the Sinophiles on Twitter went slightly mental.

So the Lowy Institute used its poll to ask the question of Australians – who is the nation’s best friend? It turns out China has just as much claim to that title as Japan (The poll found 31 per cent of Australians regard China as Australia’s best friend in Asia – statistically equivalent to the 28 per cent who regard Japan as our best friend.)

China’s warm standing on the Lowy ’thermometer’ of 60 degrees is its equal highest score since tracking started ten years ago, and was six degrees warmer than the poll a year ago. So we like this relationship more, it seems. And perhaps this can be sheeted to the huge two-way tourist traffic between the countries, and maybe the large numbers of students from China. So it seems we are getting to know each other better.

But the 48 per cent of Australians – nearly half! – who believe it is likely or highly likely that Australia will be in military conflict with China in 20 years is diametrically opposed to that sentiment of warmth! And that is up 7 per cent over last year, and transcends age and sex demographics. It is just a solid block of Australians who believe we are headed for military conflict.

This year’s poll also find that 56 per cent of Australians think the government allows too much investment from China (against 34 per cent who say Chinese is about right.)

These are Big Picture views. They are sentiments and they have fluctuated over the years. So you can’t read them as an exact science.

But they are nonetheless interesting, and if it’s me reading the signs, I am saying that Australians realise the importance of China as a trading partner, and broadly admire the Chinese. The warmth is genuine, of course, but the suspicion creeps in because we simply don’t know enough about the countryits people, its politics and its business mores.

Of course this is a massive generalisation, and entirely speculative.

But another poll question is revealing. Lowy asks questions about the world leaders that Australians admire. Barack Obama is the most admired – with 49 per cent admiring him a lot, and 38 per cent admiring him a little (for a total; 87 per cent of Australians admire Obama.)

Compare this to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who had the lowest number of admirers. Two per cent of Australians admire Xi a lot, while 15 per cent admire him a little (for a total of 17 per cent admire Xi).

This would be stunning if it weren’t for the fact that 64 per cent of Australia did not know, or had no view, on admiring Xi or not. Which is to say they simply did not know him. And that speaks volumes. As a nation, we simply do not know enough about our largest trading partner.

This could become a big problem for both counties

As Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove told a press conference today, President Xi will be in Australia later this year to attend the G20 meetings – presenting a good opportunity for Australians to learn more about the leader of this most powerful and important friend.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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