Future Forum: ChAFTA five years on

APAC News luminaries gather for the fifth anniversar of the siging of ChAFTA

Fifth Anniversary forum, Jim Harrowell (L) with Andrew Robb (centre), Helen Sham-Ho, Dame Marie Bashir, Philip Ruddock and Damien Tudehope

On the anniversary of the signing of the China Australia Free Trade Agreement, former Prime Minister Paul Keating attacks media negativity as business hopes to avoid the distractions

19 November 2019 | Marcus Reubenstein

On Sunday night five hundred members of the Chinese-Australian business community gathered at Sydney’s Town Hall to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the signing of Australia’s most far reaching trade agreement. The major event, to commemorate the milestone, was organised by The Australia China Future Forum (ACFF) which hopes to foster greater business understanding and cooperation between Australia and China.

Newsparer headlines critical of China which earnt rebuke from Paul Keating
Headlines ‘fired by alarm’ says Keating

However, the focus on the ChAFTA anniversary was shifted the morning after this gala event. Prominent newspaper headlines heavily criticised the Chinese government, prompting a sharp rebuke from former Prime Minister Paul Keating who says, “The Sydney Morning Herald has two anti-China stories in today’s paper. It’s the usual ‘shock and awe’ indignation. All fundamentally fired by alarm at the scale and speed of China’s rise.”

His comments were made as part of a keynote address at a strategic forum on China, organised by the Sydney Morning Herald’s broadsheet rival The Australian – whose editors were not spared from his barbs either.

Keating says, “My concern is what passes for the foreign policy of Australia lacks any sense of strategic realism – and that the whispered word ‘communism’ of old, is now being replaced with the word ‘China’.”

Former PM questions media balance

Adding to that, he says, “And the media has been up to its ears in it… The Australian media has been recreant in its duty to the public in failing to present a balanced picture of the rise, legitimacy and importance of China, preferring instead to traffic in side plays dressed up with cosmetics of sedition and risk.”

Critics of Keating, who was Australia’s prime minister from December 1991 until March 1996, argue his views are conflicted because of his business interests, most notably as a member of the advisory board of the China Development Bank.

As a former prime minister, invited to speak at a major forum, others argue his comments are relevant. In his speech he made no suggestion the views expressed were anything other than his own.

Keating praises Donald Trump

Keating’s comments sparked further media reports suggesting the former PM was taking a biased China stance. However, he also heaped praise on President Donald Trump in his trade-rooted face-off against China, saying, “President Trump’s instincts are to avoid military confrontations, what he calls permanent wars, but the confrontation – the military one – he most seeks to avoid is with China.

“From the Australian national interest we should applaud the president for that. But more than that, keep on applauding… So, while the president’s instincts in these respects are good – and they are particularly good – he is nonetheless not personally able to divine a new international agenda. He will not be constructing a new world model,” Keating says.

Had a former Labor prime minister praised Republican Donald Trump in a forum where China was not the major topic of discussion it would be a given that sections of the media would have jumped on those comments and made headlines out of that.

Media debate distracting business

Andrew Robb, the former trade minister who struck the ChAFTA deal on Australia’s behalf and who also has Chinese business interests, was the keynote attendee at the fifth anniversary dinner. Earlier he spoke at the Australia China Future Forum seminar, a half day event preceding the dinner.

He says, following his parliamentary retirement in 2016, “During that time, we’ve had some problems at a political level with China and these sorts of things do happen from time to time. But at a commercial level it’s been a relationship that’s got stronger and stronger and stronger each year, since 2015.”

APAC News dinner guests at 2019 Australia China Future Forum
Looking up: forum guests still positive about China-Australia business

Robb went on to praise the large Chinese-Australian community for its significant role in facilitating direct commercial ties with China that are making up an ever-increasing proportion of the A$117 billion in export income generated through the trade relationship.

Several Australian business-people who attended the forum expressed frustration at what they perceive is the disconnect between China and Australia when it comes to differing business culture and protocols. One attendee commented,“Chinese events are very big on symbolism, it’s not so much what is said but who attends a forum that matters. Many Australians in business don’t understand this.”

Lawyer Jim Harrowell, who is the NSW Government’s Special Envoy to China, says, “The public perception is that it’s all bad, Australian business needs to advocate the benefits of the China relationship that provides significant benefits to all Australians.”  

The first Australia China Future Forum held in 2018, featured a keynote address from Kevin Rudd, who received what some described as a ‘rock star’ reception. He wowed the Chinese audience with his Mandarin but the event also had the air of a book launch as he signed copies of his memoir The PM Years which had been released the week before his appearance.   

The challenge for any event, whether Chinese or not, is that big name attendees like prominent politicians draw a crowd but can also distract from the real ambitions of that event.

China-Australia business a long-term relationship

The co-convenor of the forum, Ian Tam who runs a business consultancy with Rudd’s son Marcus Rudd, says there’s noticeable tension affecting Chinese-Australian business. He points to negative headlines over Hong Kong-born federal politician Gladys Liu, and her previous membership of Chinese associations, and recent revelations of substantial cash donations delivered to Australian Labor Party politicians by Chinese donors.

APAC News Ian Tam and Andrew Robb at Australia China Future Forum
Ian Tam (L) and Andrew Robb at ACFF 2019 Dinner

“It puts Chinese-Australians in a difficult position,” says Tam, “because people will be likely to criticize and demonize (them).”

Of the ACFF, Tam says, “This is about strengthening the confidence of Australian and Chinese (people) doing business and to have a positive direction. This is the aim of why we want to do this, and I think today is a great success.”

Just five years into what is very a comprehensive, and at times complex, trade relationship, he says it’s an evolving process. “I think we need time to understand each other more, to respect each other more, and by using dialogue to resolve tension and pressure… Australia has to have a long-term strategy.”