Q & A with Jamie Reilly and Jingdong Yuan, editors of Engaging China

Jamie Reilly is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. He has been a Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, and served as the East Asia Representative of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in China from 2001–2008.

Jingdong Yuan is Associate Professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, University of Sydney, and an Associate Senior Fellow at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Dr Yuan’s research focuses on Indo–Pacific security, Chinese foreign policy, Sino–Indian relations, China-EU relations, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. He has held a number of prestigious visiting appointments in Asia, Europe, and North America.

Two separate photos of authors Jamie Reilly and Jingdong Yuan

Engaging China explores the unique relationship between Australia and China, and how it has changed in recent decades. What would you describe as some of the distinguishing features of this relationship?

Australia’s relationship with China is distinguished by the importance of Australia’s economic ties with China, the diversity and depth of the Chinese-Australian community within Australia, and the challenges that US-China tensions pose for Australia’s China ties. Over the past five decades, Australian policymakers from both major parties have navigated these challenges by relying upon an "engagement" strategy with China. As we explain in our introductory chapter, Australia’s engagement of China has facilitated a deepening economic relationship alongside expanded cultural, educational and people-to-people exchanges, fostering greater understanding between the two countries and populations. By maintaining a pragmatic approach to navigating and managing bilateral differences, Canberra’s engagement strategy has yielded numerous benefits for Australia and Australians. Yet, as the strategic rivalry between the United States and China rapidly deepens, growing distrust and fears of China are once again shaping Australian media coverage and public discourse, with potent implications for Australia’s China policy. This book explores these dynamics and explains how returning to a robust engagement strategy best serves the interests of Australia and Australians.

Tell us a bit about how this project began. 

We first conceived of this project back in September 2021, when the outlook for Australia’s diplomatic relations with China looked grim. Seeking to follow on our 2012 co-edited volume, Australia and China at 40, we wanted to mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties by producing a collaborative book bringing together a diverse group of leading China experts across various issue areas. We began by seeking out Sydney-based scholars, diplomats, and journalists who shared both our concerns over the surge of fear and misinformation that has undermined thoughtful public deliberations over Australia’s complex relationship with China and our vision for how we could collectively contribute to a more stable, productive, and successful relationship with China. Personally, we felt inspired by Gough Whitlam’s bold China visit of July 1971, and so designed this project and the resulting book around our hopes of recapturing Whitlam’s vision and courage in calling for Australians, as Ambassador FitzGerald points out in his chapter, to "open their minds" and to renew their confidence in a robust engagement strategy.

The book is divided into three parts: foreign and security relations; the economy; and media, education and culture. As editors, how important was it for you to present such a well-rounded view of Australia–China relations?

Australia’s rich and diverse relations with China extend far beyond the political and economic interactions that tend to dominate news headlines. We designed this book to include a broad range of issues and perspectives that we felt were often marginalised in the mainstream media. Australia–China relations are far more than simply fear and greed. The two countries share a long and proud history of social interactions, with Chinese immigrants having made countless contributions to Australia’s local communities, schools, universities, culture, and society. In addition to restoring to a more balanced approach in diplomacy and resuming more nuanced and effective economic policies, adopting a more nuanced approach to reporting on China, openly tackling financial and cultural challenges within the higher education sector, and reinvesting in cultural diplomacy are all measures that can contribute to restoring a more stable foundation for Australia’s engagement with China. Overall, the diverse and thoughtful contributions to this volume offer a clarion call for policymakers to push back against an atmosphere of fear and misunderstanding, and to instead offer calm, confident leadership to restore a more stable and productive relationship with China.

What do you think is the greatest challenge that the relationship between Australia and China currently faces?

We believe that there are two crucial challenges for Australian policymakers, which we highlight in our introductory chapter and throughout this book. First, Australian policymakers need to reconsider how to “right-size” the role of the United States within the Australia–China relationship. While Australia’s relationship with the United States is certainly important, the rapidly escalating tensions between the US and China have had numerous negative effects upon Australia’s own diverse and complex relationship with China. The contributors to this volume demonstrate these negative effects across a range of core issue areas and offer a number of practical suggestions for policymakers to consider.  Secondly, Australian policymakers and the broader public need to explore how we can restore a bipartisan, socially embedded consensus in support of a robust engagement strategy. Reaching the 50th anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties offers an opportunity for all of us who are involved in the AustraliaChina relationship to explain more clearly and persuasively why we believe an engagement strategy best serves the interests of Australia and Australians. This book represents our collective contribution to this crucial endeavour.

For readers interested in learning more about China and about the special relationship between our two countries, what other resources might you recommend?

Some of the more important recent books on the AustraliaChina relationship include David Brophy’s 2021 book, The China Panic (La Trobe/Black Inc.), James Curran’s 2022 book, Australia’s China Odyssey: from euphoria to fear (NewSouth Books), Mobo Gao et al., eds., Different Histories, Shared Futures: Dialogues on AustraliaChina (Palgrave 2023), and David Fitzsimmons’ 2023 volume, Australia’s Relations with China: the illusion of choices, 1972–2022 (Routledge).  For an engaging read into some of the business perspectives on the relationship, readers can consult Glenda Korporaal’s 2021 report, “Behind the headlines: why Australian companies are still doing business with China”, published by the Australia–China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney. Hugh White’s 2022 Quarterly Essay (86) “Sleepwalk to war: Australia’s unthinking alliance with America” is an insightful analysis of the implications of the US alliance for Australia’s relationship with China, as is The Echidna Strategy by Sam Roggeveen (La Trobe/Black Inc., 2023). Ongoing and regular reports are also published by the Australia–China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, the Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU, as well as by the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre. 

Engaging China is available now. Order your copy here.