Australia in the south of China: A Remarkable Canvas

Former Consul-General to Guangzhou, Jill Collins, reflects on the business and trade links between Australia and South China.

 

 

It is said that stepping back can make a picture clearer. And having recently returned to Australia following a stint as Australia’s Consul-General in Guangzhou, I see in even sharper focus the great strides we are making in our partnerships in this region. Nowhere, arguably, is the Government’s pursuit of economic diplomacy – seeking a strong, sustainable and resilient Australian economy through our international engagement – more filled with promise and potential.

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It is a custom of mine to collect a special piece of artwork from each city I’ve lived in. Of my four China assignments to date, Guangzhou has been both the most rewarding and the most challenging. And though I lack artistic talent myself, in my mind’s eye I’ve painted a picture of my remarkable experiences there. This ‘imaginary’ piece reflects Australia’s bilateral achievements in South China with a deep, rich palette, sophisticated hues, compelling narratives and depth of texture.

In the foreground of this picture sits our bilateral political engagement, going from strength to strength. As I write this, Prime Minister Tony Abbott steps to the podium at this year’s Bo’ao Forum in Hainan – an event co-founded by Australia, in which successive governments have engaged the cream of China’s leadership and business elite. It seems unthinkable now that, by the mid-2000s, just one Prime Minister had set foot in the south of China on an official visit. Contrast this with the past year, in which the Governor-General, two Prime Ministers, Foreign and Trade Ministers have flown the flag in Guangdong, Fujian, Hainan and Guangxi.

These high-level contacts reflect the expanding breadth and depth of Australia’s interests, and the increasing relevance of South China as we work towards a secure and prosperous future so vitally important to all Australians.

A substantial corner of my imaginary canvas portrays the newest chapter in our commercial relationship – the Australia-Guangdong Business Cooperation Council. At its recent first meeting, the Council agreed on common aspirations, including work towards best practice guidelines for bilateral business exchange and a commitment to encourage Australia-Guangdong internships to complement the Government’s New Colombo Plan initiative.

Like any good piece of art, this painting has plenty of colour and movement, our booming people-to-people links providing ample subject matter. These human dimensions are the layers of foundation paint, often unseen, adding substantial depth, texture and perspective.

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In South China, this paint is laid thick. One of the best examples is international tourism, which is booming. Travellers clocking up hours from Guangzhou to Australian capitals can now choose from some 40 direct services a week, compared to less than a dozen a handful of years ago.

Guangdong in particular has become one of our largest tourism markets, but it’s not all one-way – Australians already account for a decent proportion of 72-hour transit visas into Guangzhou. And Guangdong consistently comes up trumps as the largest provincial source of Chinese students bound for the Australian education market.

Guangdong’s efforts to drive more innovation across the Pearl River Delta augur well for our connections in the creative and high-tech fields. Australian architects are already well-established in South China, with successful projects in Zhujiang CBD and other design initiatives. And exciting collaborations such as Sydney Symphony’s training activities with Guangzhou Opera House, or Tennis Australia’s China talent programs, are setting new benchmarks for the cultural and sporting sectors.

If you’d asked me a few years ago – what defines Australia’s commercial profile in South China? – I might have scratched my head and pointed to the resources boom. But today, the diversity of Australia’s business success stories in the region is striking – particularly in services and knowledge oriented sectors – think finance and legal, logistics, education, tourism and niches in advanced manufacturing just to name a few.

In China, businesspeople appreciate the importance of engaging with the government sector, and as Consul-General I made it my business to engage with business – a wide range of Australian companies, including Australian-Chinese entrepreneurs with insightful local knowledge, and Chinese companies keen for Australian partnerships.

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This painting faithfully reproduces my very tactile memories of Australians at work in the region – sparks flying in a steel mill, steam rising in the kitchen of an Australian-run bakery, goose bumps in a cold room where Australian seafood awaits market; mountains of coal being transported from an unimaginably large port, a friendly Australian face at a five-star hotel, and the smiles of Chinese graduates clutching degree certificates standing proudly with their Australian teachers.

Notwithstanding South China’s increasing popularity among travellers and businesspeople from across the globe, the region has its share of challenging issues. But these ‘dark spaces’ at the edge of the canvas offer unique opportunities to Australian governments, companies, NGOs and individuals that are positioned to ‘add some colour’ into the picture. Some of the ways we are already doing this include through the sharing of our world-class environmental innovations, our experience in urban planning and quality aged care models, and our strengths in government and commercial accountability systems and benchmarking.

Now that I’m back in the picturesque – though modestly populated – capital of Canberra, I do miss the big-city lights and the buzz of Guangzhou.

Representing Australia in this dynamic region has left me with profound impressions of the potential for our bilateral relationship. Put simply – strengthening Australia’s engagement with South China is something worth advocating for.

There are many other elements of my “Guangzhou story” that I’ll have to leave to another time – or perhaps another canvas – but why not experience South China for yourself? I guarantee it’ll be an experience you never forget. 

*Jill Collins is a senior officer at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and recently concluded a posting to Guangzhou as Australian Consul-General.

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