Re-Orienting Australia-China Relations: 1972 to the Present, edited by Nicholas Thomas. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004. xiv + 292 pp. US$89.95/£50.00 (hardcover).
This is a useful book for anybody interested in the background and recent history of Australia-China relations. However, the title Re-Orienting Australia-China Relations belies the contents of some of the chapters, which do not address that issue of "re-orienting". This is a predictable outcome when twelve scholars are asked to contribute to an edited volume. Integration of twelve chapters into a polished whole requires very clear guidelines from the start and/or a ruthless editor at the finish.
The first chapter by Colin Mackerras is a useful summary of Australia-China relations between 1972 and 2002. The chapter on Australia's relations with Taiwan by Bruce Jacobs is well-written and meticulously footnoted. Jacobs tries to track and explain the reasons that changes occurred in Australia's relations with Taiwan. But we are still left wondering how Australia's relationship with China might have been re-oriented in the context of Australia-Taiwan relations over the last thirty years. William Tow's chapter on the geopolitical context of Australia-China relations, especially the conundrums posed for Australia's core relationship with the US, is insightful. However, some points need qualification, for example, the claim that China is "unwilling to fully embrace Australia's 'Asianness' as long as Australia remains firmly Western in its fundamental geopolitical orientation and remains closely tied to the United States" (p. 51). Very few Australians-or Chinese-seriously think of Australia as Asian or part of Asia. On the contrary, China (and Taiwan) value relations with Australia because it is English-speaking, Westernized, industrialized, influential in Washington and London and, yes, Australian.
The chapter by Liz Pitts on Australian-Chinese subnational government relations presents thorough research on the myriad linkages that have been established in China by agencies and institutions outside the central governments. The chapter might have been developed further to address questions (reflecting the thrust of the book's title) as to why there has been a proliferation of such linkages and what they signify about the direction of Australia-China relations. Pitts asks that a central body be set up, perhaps in Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to catalogue and synchronize these linkages. That's sensible.
The next chapter, "Australia and China in the World Trade Organization", by Brett Williams, is excellent. It is well written, informative, detailed, well-footnoted and logical. In his concluding remarks, he relates the chapter to the changes that have taken place in Australia-China relations from 1972 to the present.
Jane Orton's chapter on Australia-China relations in business presents the fruits of original though narrow research (often in undigested slabs). Surprisingly, her starting point is 1993-94. Her vision of her topic differed from the editor's, because there is a noticeable absence of comment on whether and why these business perspectives have been re-oriented over the last decade. The chapter following analyzes the statistics, content and comparative trends in business, trade, investment and economic linkages between Australia and China. This chapter, too, ought to have assessed the re-orientation of the relationship over the period 1972-2002. …