Arthur: Michael Smith
Publication: Australian Financial Review
Australia's commercial relationship with China is robust despite diplomatic tensions, according to a delegation of business leaders visiting Beijing at the weekend. They insist they are not worried Peter Dutton's criticism of China's Communist Party would hurt trade.
More than 20 Australian executives, former politicians and lawyers met with Chinese government officials, investors and state-owned enterprises on Friday and Saturday as part of an annual delegation aimed at building business opportunities between the two countries.
Former trade minister Andrew Robb said while the political relationship had been "toxic" in recent years, Chinese officials were more concerned about diversifying away from a reliance on US markets than punishing Australia.
"I don't see the commercial relationship having deteriorated in any sense. The commercial relationship has continued in many areas, with increases in trade 15 to 20 per cent year on year," Mr Robb told The Australian Financial Review.
"My sense of the last couple of days is that with the continuation of the US-China trade tensions, they certainly seem to be trying to tell us they are going to spread their risk in the future and not be as dependent on the United States and that provides opportunities for Australia."
"Certainly the whole tone has been that they want to collaborate with Australia, maintaining and building that trading relationship and investment," Mr Robb said.
Executives from BHP Billiton, Woodside Energy, Orica and Elders were among the annual Australia-China Belt and Road Initiative delegation to China. This year, the emphasis was on looking at opportunities for Australian and Chinese companies, universities and investors to collaborate on technology and the environment.
The meetings in Beijing came as Mr Dutton delivered a broadside against China's Communist Party for orchestrating a series of cyber attacks, intellectual property theft and efforts to muzzle academic freedom in technology and and the environment.
The Chinese Embassy hit back on Friday night, issuing a statement denouncing Mr Dutton for a "malicious slur" on Chinese people.
Former Howard government minister and businessman Warwick Smith said Mr Dutton's comments did not spoil the mood of the delegation's meetings with senior Chinese officials and business people.
"I felt confident we are travelling well and ultimately [Scott] Morrison is going to be invited to come here, maybe early next year," Mr Smith, who heads the new National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, said.
An Australian prime minister has not visited China since April 2016.
"He [Dutton] has a hard job to do and he should do it. It is not just for governments to worry about, but business is worried about cyber and hacking as well. That is not a reason not to do business [with China]."
Mr Robb said the biggest opportunities for Australia were in the services sector with concessions already agreed in the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, particularly in healthcare.
Wang Yiming, a vice-minister for the Chinese government's Development and Research Centre told the delegation he would encourage Australian miners such as BHP to invest more in China.
Jean Dong, chief executive of the Australia-China Belt and Road Initiative, said the opportunities for doing business with China were shifting away from traditional areas such as property and commodities to the service sector and sharing expertise in technology and climate change initiatives
"Australian companies have a lot of great expertise in those areas," she said. We want to encourage China to look beyond the traditional sectors like property."
The delegation discussed developments in Chinese automation, digital, data, water saving and electric vehicle technologies and potential collaboration in the mining, energy and agriculture sectors.
There were about 40 representatives from Chinese state-owned enterprises and private mining, energy, agriculture and technology companies, along with Chinese investors and banks.
While delegates said business was concerned about cyber security and intellectual property theft, issues which have been raised by authorities in Washington and Canberra, they said this did not mean collaboration on technology between the two countries should stop.
Mr Robb said as China made advances in technology it had a greater incentive to lift standards domestically to protect its own innovation. "It certainly was happening and I'm not saying it doesn't happen. There is an internal incentive to get on top of the IP issues. they have certainty significantly hardened up," he said.
While trade between China and Australia has increased, direct investment from China into Australia has fallen. A China-government-backed $1.5 billion takeover offer for infant formula group Bellamy's Australia is now facing regulatory and political scrutiny in Canberra,
Canberra is becoming increasingly concerned about China's efforts to build regional influence, cyber hacking and foreign interference in universities. Executives in China say the opportunities from the world's second-largest economy are still huge, but warn that tightening regulations and government interference were big risks.