Malcolm Turnbull sought to smooth ties with China and emphasise the importance of higher education in relations between the two countries in a speech yesterday at the University of NSW.
Addressing university leaders from across the country, scholars and Chinese diplomats, the Prime Minister said the ongoing role of Australian education in the region was vital, adding that his government was committed to entrenching Australia as a world leader in education, training and research.
More than 125,000 Chinese nationals were enrolled at Australian universities in May this year, and students from China make up 62 per cent of international student enrolments at Group of Eight universities.
Higher education, Mr Turnbull said, was of “vital importance to our comprehensive, strategic partnership with China”.
The Sydney venue for his speech was symbolic of Australia’s hopes for increased mutual understanding; UNSW is the institution of choice for a high proportion of students from China
“Your work here demonstrates to our neighbours in the most practical way that our commitment to the Indo-Pacific region is firm and abiding,” Mr Turnbull said to the assembled academics.
His speech came hard on the heels of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s meeting in Singapore with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, earlier this week.
After their talks Mr Wang declared that “Australia can do more to boost mutual trust rather than making groundless suspicion”, apparently a reference to Australia’s new espionage laws.
Australia-China relations have been rocky since late last year, when Mr Turnbull accused China of meddling in Australian politics and universities.
“Foreign powers are making unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process, both here and abroad,” he said at the time, prompting an angry reaction from Beijing.
It is understood that university leaders have implored Mr Turnbull to repair the relationship with China, which is of huge importance to Australia’s $32 billion higher education export market.
“The ongoing role of Australian education in the region is vital for the prosperity and security of the Indo-Pacific,” Mr Turnbull said yesterday.
“International education is so much more than foreign students coming to study in the region and leaving with a degree. Every arrival here is the start of a relationship that grows, adapts, renews and ultimately benefits us all.”
Mr Turnbull cited a number of instances of successful Australia-China connections and collaborations that had been fostered by higher education, including research in the fields of groundwater and wastewater, solar power, geology and mining.
Mr Turnbull reflected on Australia’s deep connections with China, which also run through his own family.
“There are 1.2 million Australians of Chinese heritage, two of whom are Lucy’s and my grandchildren”, he said.
Modern Australia was unimaginable without “the talented and dynamic contribution of Australians of Chinese descent”. Chinese-Australians were a vital element in Australian society, the most successful multicultural society in the world, he said.
Mr Turnbull’s speech was welcomed by leaders in the sector.
“It is heartening to see the Prime Minister recognise the important and fundamental role our universities play in developing meaningful ties that benefit all of us both at home and abroad,” said Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson.