Australia and China at 40

By Mackerras, Colin | The China Journal, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Australia and China at 40


Mackerras, Colin, The China Journal


Australia and China at 40, edited by James Reilly and Jingdong Yuan. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2012. xii + 244 pp. AU$49.99 (hardcover).

Chinas rise has met with mixed reactions internationally and in Australia. One school of thought doubts that this rise will persist beyond a few years; another predicts that it will go on transforming international relations in the coming decades. The divergence is important, because devising policy depends on sensible expectations for the future.

This book does not aim to present a summation of Australia-China relations in celebration of 40 years of diplomatic relations, which were established in 1972. Instead, it takes the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations as an "opportune moment for Australians to reflect on their past, present and future relations" with China (p. 2). It fulfills its aim brilliantly by offering timely, perceptive and important reflections on the bilateral relationship. There is already a substantial literature on this topic, but the editors are right to point out the lack of a book on the implications of the deepening strategic and economic engagement which has characterized Australia's relations with China in the 21st century.

The book has chapters on various aspects of the relationship's history. Several cover strategic factors; others consider the very important area of economic dealings. A couple of them deal with the highly pertinent interrelationships between economic and strategic matters. One chapter deals closely with Australian perceptions of China, especially the implications of the latter's rise.

The contributors are all well versed in this subject. They include both Australian and Chinese specialists, providing well-informed insights from points of view coming from both countries. This is important, because interests, assumptions and experiences differ by country, no matter how international and globalized scholars aspire to be.

One of the central themes in this book follows from the fact, remarked on repeatedly by the authors, that China is now the country with which Australia has the largest volume of trade, while the United States remains its main strategic partner. It is not the first time that Australia's main strategic and trading partners have been different countries, but for the first time the country topping Australia's trade is now not even allied with its most important strategic partner. This leads to a central question of this book: how should Australia react to this dichotomy?

Although many chapters touch on this problem in one way or another, three in particular address it directly, presenting somewhat different views. They are by John Lee of the University of Sydney, You Ji of the University of New South Wales and Nick Bisley of La Trobe University.

John Lee sees China's position as quite weak. Its rise has not been accompanied by any increase in the kind of influence that matters. As China rises, most of its neighbors react by seeing it as a threat to their security and trying to strengthen traditional alliances with the US, even though China is now their top trading partner. China has only limited leverage to "punish" countries acting against its interests. …

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