We need China more than it needs us, Australian leaders warn

Foreign interference concerns should not blind policymakers to the benefits of collaboration, forum hears

November 23, 2021
Melbourne, Australia - May 12, 2019 Chinese lion figurine. Chinatown shop along Little Bourke Street in the Central Business District (CBD) that sells oriental souvenirs.
Source: iStock

The benefits of research collaboration with China far outweigh the challenges, and Australia would be the main loser if it allowed foreign interference concerns to blind it to the opportunities, a conference has heard.

“The suggestion that China is impossible to deal with does not step up against the evidence,” said Queensland University of Technology (QUT) deputy vice-chancellor Scott Sheppard. “It would be fair to say that we need China more than they need us.

“There are sensitive areas of research between our two countries. China has them just as we do. But…a sensible and proportionate way of dealing with that is simply good management. We do that now. We actually do it quite well.”

The forum on “The future of Australia-China higher education ties” was hosted by the Foundation of Australian Studies in China. It heard that foreign influence concerns, along with Covid-related restrictions and the “complete breakdown in bilateral government relations”, had hindered a “boom” in scientific collaboration that had turned China into Australia’s leading partner in producing scientific publications.

“We need to be wary of the chilling effects of geopolitical tensions and foreign interference concerns,” said University of Melbourne deputy vice-chancellor Michael Wesley, adding that challenges like climate change, pandemics and resource shortages were “simply beyond the capacity of any national research capability”.

University of Sydney virologist Eddie Holmes’ work in mapping the Covid genome, in partnership with researchers at Fudan University in Shanghai, was “a classic example of Australia-China research collaboration leading to the betterment of humanity”.

Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson cited University of Queensland immunologist Ian Frazer’s collaboration with Chinese colleague Jian Zhou to produce the Gardasil vaccine, leading to an estimated 90 per cent decrease in the prevalence of the virus that causes cervical cancer.

“It is our responsibility to work with government to ensure Australia’s national security is never compromised. It’s also our responsibility to do everything we can to continue enabling…research that will increasingly underpin our ongoing prosperity,” she said.

Ms Thomson said Australian co-publications with China had not declined during Covid, despite the geopolitics. And while China remained Australia’s top research publication partner, it produced more collaborative science with both the US and the UK.

Professor Sheppard said Australia could not afford to lose a research partner with China’s scale, depth of talent and international connections. He said China’s dedication of 6 per cent of its GDP to research and development, with basic research claiming about 8 per cent of this investment, dwarfed such spending in the West.

China had become a “very significant player” in science diplomacy, with more than 400 Chinese scientists holding office in international science and technology-related non-government organisations – many as chair or vice-chair.

“If you add this to the influence that China has in organisations like the International Organisation for Standardisation and the depth and breadth of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, [it is] another very important reason you should be engaging with China,” Professor Sheppard said.

He cited work on air pollution – a field where local funding was “virtually impossible” to obtain, with Australia not considered to have air quality issues – as an example of the benefits of collaboration. Chinese colleagues “advised us right from the start that as long as the research was done in China; there was no issue with gaining funding”.

One of the participants, QUT aerosol researcher Lidia Morawska, went on to generate important insights about Covid transmission. “That’s been an enormously beneficial research area,” Professor Sheppard said.


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles