Young Australians are being urged to learn Chinese as a way to foster and support stronger long-term economic and cultural ties with China. A leading Sydney researcher believes that Australia's economy, which is dependent on minerals exports to China, would benefit if young people had a deeper understanding of the Chinese psyche and an ability to address language barriers that currently hamper business.
China is Australia’s biggest trading partner. The economic relationship is underpinned by the resources industry, where annual exports of Australian iron ore are worth more than $34 billion. Lucrative sales of commodities helped to insulate Australia from the worst affects of the global financial crisis but some academics worry that the country is overly reliant on its minerals trade with China. There are concerns that should the Chinese economy stutter or contract, the economic pinch would also be damaging in Australia.
Graeme Smith from the China Research Center at the University of Technology in Sydney believes Australian businesses must increasingly tap into other markets in China, such as the financial services sector.
Smith also says that to expand those opportunities, more young Australians must be encouraged to learn China’s main language, Mandarin.
“It is absolutely crucial and China to be fair is making enormous investments in English language education but in terms of us wanting to understand and actually see the opportunities that exist in China whether it be in business but more interestingly in cultural terms," Smith said. "Without the language you really are lost."
Australia’s economic reliance on China and its long-standing military alliance with the United States have put a greater diplomatic burden on the government in Canberra. It must perform a balancing act between Beijing and Washington to try to reconcile the twin demands of economic prosperity and national security.
Professor Alan Dupont, the director of the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney, says in the past the United States was by far Australia’s most important ally but the situation has changed.
“Now the choice has become much more difficult because China has become our most important trading partner while the U.S. is still our strongest ally, so the problem for our foreign and defense policy now is what happens if there’s a conflict between those superpowers," Dupont stated. "Where is Australia going to be? How are we going to make our choices so that we don’t come out of it badly? We are having to confront what our Asian neighbors have confronted for probably 2,000 years - how do you deal with a powerful China?
Australia’s relationship with China has had its problems. The jailing last year in Shanghai of an Australian mining executive on corruption charges caused diplomatic tensions. Canberra’s earlier decision to grant a visa to Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer also infuriated the Chinese, who regard the exiled leader as an extremist.
While Australian officials still raise concerns about the treatment of ethnic minorities and human rights, Canberra’s ties with Beijing have become increasingly robust and mature. Recent opinion polls have suggested that the majority of Australians believe that China is making a significant contribution to Australia's economy.