It has been more than one year since the trade war between Australia and China gained traction, and many exports of Australia have been affected. Concerns are growing around the tertiary education sector being the next victim of new sanctions. (Image source: Getty via The New Daily)

By Tiffany Lai |@tiffanylai527

Where it began: COVID-19 as a turning point

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne requested the World Health Organisation (WHO) to investigate the origin of COVID-19 from the city of Wuhan, China, where the outbreak was discovered. This was done without prior diplomatic consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China.

To express its dissatisfaction, China started to impose several trade tariffs on Australian imports from May 2020, starting with 80 per cent anti-dumping duties on Australian barley, followed by Australian meat, cotton, wine, lobster, timber and coal.

Australia’s retaliation to these restrictions are ongoing, with Trade Minister Dan Tehan recently announcing the government would defend the interests of the wine industry by appealing wine-specific tariffs with the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This follows Australia calling in the WTO in December of 2020 regarding the tariffs applied to barley.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also recently called on other democracies at the G7 Summit to take a more assertive stance against China’s trade action among other issues.

The only item that remains safe to enter China from Australia is iron ore due to its demand for infrastructure development.  

These tensions meant a huge loss for Australian exports, as China was Australia’s biggest trade partner. Producers were urged to find alternative markets to cover the loss from the trade sanctions.

However, COVID-19 was not the only reason for China’s trade sanctions. Human rights concerns regarding Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, relations with Taiwan, and conflict of South China Sea were also contributing factors to Australia’s distance. Beijing reiterates that these issues are their “internal affairs” and responded specifically to the recent G7 criticisms as a “gross interference”.

The fear of the tertiary education sector becoming a victim in this trade war

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tertiary education was the fourth largest Australian export and contributed more than 37 billion dollars to Australia’s GDP. This meant the number of foreign students who study in Australia contributed largely to the value of education as a trade investment.

International students were the biggest support of universities in Australia, with China having the largest proportion of international students studying in Australia. According to the Australian Trade and Investment Commission, in 2019 there were a total of 176,082 Chinese students in Australia. This was the peak of recent years. Then in 2020, the number dropped to 163,336.

The high export value of the education sector also indirectly increased the domestic GDP when students were involved in business activities during their stay in Australia.

In June 2020, the Beijing government claimed there were several instances of discrimination towards Chinese students in Australia, discouraging Chinese students to travel to Australia by asking them “to reconsider their decisions”.

From here, the relationship with China dropped to its lowest point. Chinese students were encouraged to consider other study destinations instead, and education agencies were told not to promote Australia as a country for studying abroad. Countries such as the US, UK, Canada, Singapore or even Malaysia may become the top alternatives for Chinese students.

Media is not as influential as we thought in China

Although the media presence in China is not positive towards Australia, University of South Australia (UniSA) lecturer, Mr Andrew Scrimgeour, who has researched Chinese language and culture for over 40 years, does not think this will largely impact on Chinese students’ incentives to study in Australia.

“Australia has been a competitive study destination for Chinese students due to its accessibility, it is cost attractive compared to other study destinations. We receive lots of high-quality students from China and that makes the reputation of excellent academic performance of Australian universities,” he said.

“It is true that the Chinese government wants to change people’s decision making in its media presence, but Chinese students are actually not that convinced by the statements made by Beijing.”

Andrew believes that Chinese students will rely more so on their families’ decisions than that of the government. 

“As long as the family members do not have a strong tie to the Communist Party of China, their attitude to study in Australia remains positive,” he said.

A Chinese student who is undertaking a postgraduate program at UniSA, Muye Shen, also thinks the decision depends on a student’s own desires.

“Some might hesitate and consider other countries instead based on the local media influence, but more students might have a strong desire to come to Australia despite the Chinese government’s statement.

“Parental concern might be the biggest factor to influence Chinese students’ decisions.”

UniSA Masters student, Sarah*, believes the more incentives to Chinese students, the more attractive Australia is as a study destination.

“Australia has the advantages that other countries cannot beat. For instance, the lesser gap of time zone, so as the climate.

“If the Australian government offers more, such as loosening the restrictions on border, there would be massive numbers of Chinese students willing to come to Australia.

The announcement made by the South Australian Government said that they will let the international students to come over and quarantine at Parafield. [This] will certainly attract lots of Chinese students despite the political conflict.”

Attitudes towards possibly ending these tensions

Earlier this year, China has announced an indefinite suspension of the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue – meaning all the diplomatic activities between the two nations will be frozen. The relationship with China is yet to be improved.

Sarah believes there are ways China can rectify the relationship if they really want to.

“If they try to loosen the tariff on Australian import, or soften the attitude towards Australia…however, it seems like the Xi Jinping government does not really care about this at all,” Sarah said.

Muye thought education would be an opportunity for the two countries to reorganise the dialogue.

“I think both governments should listen to more opinions from the international students, as we are the ones who are deeply affected, we have the rights to influence the decision making.”

Alternatively, Andrew explained there is nothing Australia can do at this moment.

“All the diplomatic strategies made by the Australian government are based on its core value. There is a huge difference on the core values between two countries, but all we need to do is to remain [in] the firm position to our values,” he said.

“No matter with the ongoing conflicts over COVID-19, Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and even Taiwan. It is up to China to change the attitude on the relationship.”

*Names of people have been changed or omitted for privacy reasons.