LOCAL agribusiness should be using Perth's Chinese community as a sounding board to improve engagement and better position itself for when global and bilateral trade conditions improve.
That is the view of the State government's former commissioner to China from 2017 until this year and acknowledged China expert, Stuart Crockett.
Mr Crockett has a background in agribusiness and agtech, having held senior managerial positions with diversified international food and agribusiness Craig Mostyn Group and with start-up Alosca Technologies commercialising WA intellectual property in the agriculture sector, before joining the public service with Austrade.
He remains a director of Alosca Technologies.
Since returning to Perth from China, Mr Crockett has joined CMG Communications as strategic counsel, trade and investment communications, with this new division having a particular focus on Asia.
Speaking last week, Mr Crockett was adamant Australia's deteriorating relationship with China will improve at some point, so WA business, particularly agribusiness, should be engaging with Chinese business partners even while the national governments were not returning each other's phone calls.
The past 12 months has seen CBH Group's barley exports to China suspended with accusations of dumping, local wines hit with punitive tariffs and delays in renewing five-year export licenses for WA hay producers, plus sanctions against a range of commodities, including packaged beef, grains, coal, cotton and timber in other States.
"While troubles exist at the geo-political level, there is still a million opportunities for us to build our strategies, build our engagement, build our friendships, our cultural awareness and understanding," Mr Crockett said.
"The door is not closed."
But he pointed out China was an extremely competitive and very diversified market to trade into, with a multitude of micro segments "intensely targeted" at specific consumer groups via individual product identification, packaging and advertising.
Mr Crockett said Chinese consumers did a lot of product and company research online.
"Many Chinese don't have a TV and don't want one because they do so much on mobile devices," Mr Crockett said.
"They catch a train for an hour and a half to work and they are on their phone for that time.
"At home, they are constantly on the phone searching for and researching information.
"They will dig so deep into the provenance of a product, researching the back story, the history - particularly if it is a premium product - because they want to be able to tell their friends they know about it.
"No one loves a story more than the Chinese, is what I tell people.
"If you don't have a story to tell or can't tell your story, then they just gloss over you and look for somebody who does have a story."
Mr Crockett said WA agribusinesses looking to better position themselves with Chinese consumers should take advantage of a Chinese resource here to learn more about the market and to test their marketing strategies.
"If you want to do business in China, get involved with the Chinese community here in Perth - there's the Australia China Business Council, the Australia China Friendship Society and a number of others," he said.
"There are more than 100,000 Chinese people living here in WA so we should be engaging with them - meeting them, getting to know them, attending their functions.
"You can market test your products with them, they are super keen to engage.
"I can assure you they are free-thinking people and very open, ask them a straight question and I'm pretty sure you'll get a straight answer back.
"Once you get past the language and appearance differences, they are fundamentally the same as us.
"They all want a better life for their kids, better housing, better education, better food - they want all the same things we do.
"I think many Australians struggle with that concept because of the way China has been portrayed to us over the years, but having that lived experience in China, they are very similar to us.
"I believe the problems we have with the China relationship at the moment can be quickly overturned face-to-face.
"Everything will be OK if we do people-to-people engagement well and respect each other.
"If the Chinese community here is putting positive things on social media back home, then the relationship will grow.
"(But) it requires consistent positive messaging."
There was a risk of "negative sentiments being normalised" unless they were counteracted with "more positive views", Mr Crockett said.
"Business and all the people who have successfully engaged with China and those that have benefited from Chinese investment in our community, should all be telling those good news stories - not loudly, not shouting, just consistent," he said.
"We should also be telling the Federal government what we think.
"If we can get that message through to Canberra, it might help move the dial just slightly and that would be great.
"If what we're saying is shouting and it's loud and it's anti-Asian, of course it's going to be heard in Beijing and of course it is going to impact on our relationship."
Mr Crockett pointed out that under President Xi Jinping and the recently released five-year plan, China was transitioning from an "export-driven economy" to a "consumer-driven economy" which would provide increasing opportunities for WA businesses.
"We need to stay focussed, we still need our strategies for that market and we need to be communicating in it," he said.
"They are a premium consumer of premium product and they pay premium prices and they buy premium volumes, so we should be in there continuously putting our message, because when things do get better we need to be top of mind."
Mr Crockett said apart from trading into China, there was potential for WA innovators and Chinese innovators to collaborate on scaling up and commercialising new developments for world markets, he said.
"In Guangdong province, for example, they want to set themselves up basically as the agtech innovators of China," he said.
"They have the most amazing ag infrastructure and they want to partner with our companies, our people here, with our innovators - it can be about packaging, shelf life, you name it.
"So we are not just talking about taking product to China, we are talking about partnering with China to take product to the world on a volume only they can do.
"We have good ideas in Australia, but it's very hard for us to scale here.
"Literally, even if it just an idea, they will scale it, commercialise it and take it to the world."