A ‘war of words’ with high stakes

How a misstep in the balancing act between China and the U.S. could dull Australia’s technological edge

Gabi Skoff
Jun 15, 2020 · 6 min read
Feature image via La Trobe University

For the past decade, Australia has strived to maintain a balance of influence between its largest economic partner in the east, China, and its political ally in the west, the U.S. Since Trump came to power, however, this equilibrium has become more difficult for Australia to maintain. From the dispute over the South China Sea to Huawei and 5G, Australia has precariously juggled opposing priorities in an effort to maintain strong ties with both superpowers. Now, as tensions between the U.S. and China amplify in the wake of COVID-19, Australia again finds itself in troubled waters. This time, the escalation of geopolitical tensions could severely threaten the maintenance of valuable, global epistemic communities in the world of quantum science and technology.

Last month, a fierce war of words erupted between China and Australia when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent inquiry into the origins and management of the COVID-19 pandemic shortly after discussing this topic with U.S. President Donald Trump. The verbal fray quickly escalated, resulting in an 80% Chinese tariff on Australian barley and a ban on the import of beef from four Australian abattoirs. China has since threatened further boycotts of other major Australian exports, including tourism and education. The news has caused fear to ripple through many Australian industries reliant on China as a principle trade partner.

China is the destination of about a quarter of all Australian exports, worth $153 billion in 2018–19. The Republic is a chief investor in many Australian industries, focused primarily in healthcare and real estate, but also significant across the mining, energy, and infrastructure sectors. Chinese tourists make up the largest portion of the Australian tourism market and international student spending is Australia’s fourth largest export. Chinese students comprise the largest portion of international students at 33% and contribute substantially to Australian university revenue, as international student fees can be up to 400% higher than domestic student fees. While the current impacts of COVID-19 on supply chains and travel have made it easier to imagine how Australia might cope with less financial input from China, it is undeniable that a more decisive financial withdrawal could inflict serious economic damage.

In April, Chinese ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye stated in an interview with that Australia’s diplomatic push could spark Chinese tourists to have “second thoughts” about coming to Australia, cause parents to question whether “this is the best place to send their kids”, and prompt Chinese citizens to ask “why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?”. The recent boycotts on Australian exports and comments made by the Chinese Ministry of Education, intended to deter Chinese students from studying in Australia due to claims of discrimination, demonstrate that China is prepared to act on these threats.

Economic entanglement is but one aspect of Australia’s deep partnership with China. China is also Australia’s leading research collaborator, overtaking traditional western knowledge creation partners in 2019 for the first time. According to a report authored by James Laurenceson and Michael Zhou of the University of Technology Sydney’s Australia-China Relations Institute, China’s emergence as a major source of knowledge creation has played a critical role in empowering the development of Australia’s own strategic technological industries. As Laurenceson and Zhou argue, “Australia does not have the scale of physical capital, human capital and/or domestic market needed to operate at the international technology frontier under its own steam”.

According to the report’s findings, Australia-China research collaboration in Materials Science, Energy, Chemical Engineering, Engineering and Computer Science accounts for more than 30% of all Australian articles in these areas. Likewise, Australia-Chinese authored articles account for more than half of Australia’s highly-cited papers in Computer Science, Engineering, Mathematics, Materials Science and Physics. These numbers reveal how critical Chinese research collaboration has become for Australia’s own knowledge generation. The high-level of quality, international research feeds into Australia’s system of research and development (R&D), ultimately enabling its ascendency as a global player in emerging technologies. Nonetheless, the authors emphasize that this productive collaboration has been and continues to be jeopardised by concerns about national security and U.S. pressure.

A 2018 Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report by Alex Joske, , alleges that Australian universities facilitate an unintentional transfer of sensitive dual-use technology knowledge (i.e. technology with both civilian and military applications) by working with Chinese researchers and postgraduate students sponsored by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). According to the ASPI report, “Since 2007, the PLA has sponsored more than 2,500 military scientists and engineers to study abroad and has developed relationships with researchers and institutions across the globe”. The report states that Australia has been engaged disproportionately in this system of knowledge exchange, with the highest level of PLA collaboration among the Five Eyes countries per capita, at six times the level in the U.S.

This has proved to be cause for substantial concern on the part of the U.S., for whom Australia is an important ally in the southern hemisphere. The ASPI report made headlines around the world, adding fuel to a fire that was already burning in some parts of the U.S. government. In 2019, a group of U.S. Republicans in Congress responded to this perceived threat by introducing the PLA Visa Security Act to ban student and visiting scholar visas for researchers employed by or affiliated with the PLA, and urging Australia and the other Five Eyes countries to enact similar measures to address this security concern. The bill is representative of the strong apprehension in the Trump government that China’s acquisition of western scientific and technological knowledge is strategic to its plan to overtake the U.S. as the dominant global power.

According to a recently published U.S. Studies Centre report, authored by Dr John Lee, the U.S. has positioned itself to capitalize on the global disruptions caused by COVID-19 in order to offset China’s growing advantage in emerging technologies, including robotics, artificial intelligence, big data, advanced materials and quantum computing. The report details how the U.S. will “deploy a mix of trade, legislative, regulatory, financial and restrictive people-to-people policies to enhance its own advantages in these areas”. These restrictions are designed to impede Chinese access to valuable markets, limit Chinese capacity for innovation, and control channels for China to develop and acquire technological know-how.

The report mentions repeatedly how U.S.-allied, “advanced trading partners” with China, such as Australia, will be forced to make difficult decisions and weather economic disruptions in order to support these objectives. As a strong American ally, Australia will likely be expected to uphold the same objectives with regard to its science and technology sector. Impacts of this would manifest predominantly in the education sector, where an Australian response to this U.S. call could also include restrictions on Chinese student and visiting academic visas and diminished institutional support for Australian-Chinese collaboration in strategic areas of science and technology.

While Australia and China trade verbal and economic blows, the U.S. appears intent on building mechanisms to cut China off from critical global partnerships, in order to attain a strategic advantage in the realm of science and technology. As a result of this geopolitical tension, Australia finds itself in a difficult position. Its long-term bilateral relationship with China now appears to face a critical point of contention-the ongoing war of words and trade restrictions has the potential to ignite severe economic and academic impacts across critical industries of collaboration.

While the U.S. has one of the world’s most successful technology industries, largely due to private and defence sector funding, Australia will suffer immensely from the loss of Chinese collaborative research, should it heed the American call to push China out. In reality, the breadth of the PLA knowledge-sourcing problem is difficult to assess. For Australia, its damage is likely outweighed by the heavy costs that will be incurred by collaborative, global epistemic communities in emerging areas of science and technology, like quantum, should the geopolitical squabble escalate along these lines. Australia will need to balance economic and political interests as well as engage in some deft diplomacy if it is to maintain its status as a rising power in quantum science and technology.

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Gabi Skoff

Written by

Content specialist & impact consultant serving purpose-driven individuals and companies in innovation and responsible tech.

Digital Diplomacy

Tech, digital, and innovation, at the intersection with policy, government, and social good.

Gabi Skoff

Written by

Content specialist & impact consultant serving purpose-driven individuals and companies in innovation and responsible tech.

Digital Diplomacy

Tech, digital, and innovation, at the intersection with policy, government, and social good.

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