The Sydney Morning Herald

By Catherine Armitage

That his name looks and sounds like a mash-up of Bill Gates may be the least interesting thing about Professor Bates Gill. He is a Detroit-born urbane internationalist and new head of the US Studies Centre at Sydney University. He might have been a forester but for a seminal choir excursion as a schoolboy.

Since arriving in Sydney in October, he has become the new go-to guy for expert comment on not just the US but China too, thanks to his erudite turn of phrase and renowned scholarship on China's military and security.

We meet for lunch on campus at the upmarket Darlington Centre restaurant, a popular haunt for academics and their visitors. It's a few steps from his sunny white office where empty shelves await the shipment of his possessions from Stockholm. Part of the spring in his step is the excitement at having ''really lucked out'' on rental of a harbourside house at Greenwich.

He is also fresh from the triumph of having the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, speak at the launch of his centre's partner institute, the Perth USAsia centre at the University of Western Australia.

So what is she like? ''A very impressive woman with great skills, not only as a diplomat but as a politician.''

''She has excellent personal skills, I would say. She has a sense of humour, yet also was able to deliver her thinking and her point very convincingly.''

It is quickly clear that sharp, nuanced analysis with a ear for humour and the human is characteristic of this personable man. He chooses orecchiette pasta with broccoli florettes, peas, flaked almonds and Persian fetta. I go for sugar cured trout with shaved fennel and blood orange salad.

But back to Clinton. Getting her into the room while simultaneously winding up his former life as director of the prestigious Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and moving his household to Sydney must have demanded all the the skills of diplomacy, networking and organisation, which presumably won him the job in the first place.

The challenge was to ''make sure we are wiring it all up in a way that all the stakeholders see this is worth her time, and don't see a lot of risk, and see the value''. That meant calls to ambassadors on both sides of the Pacific, as well as to ''people in Washington that you know would be interested and supportive, and at some point would have the opportunity to say the right words at the right time''.

The atmospherics for the launch, timed to coincide with the annual AUSMIN ministerial meeting between the two countries, were just right too. The Obama administration is rebalancing foreign policy from the Middle East to the region (the ''East Asia pivot'') while China plays an ever-stronger role in world affairs. Australia is keen to play the role of ''middle power''.

''To be honest I think we were pushing on an open door,'' Gill says.

My salmon sparkles with a crunchy salad and a refreshingly citrus finish. His pasta looks a bit on the bland side, and tastes so too, apparently. He is politely reluctant to pass judgment but admits, when pressed, he is ''inclined to more spicy'' dishes. It starts us riffing on the joys of spicy Chinese food from Sichuan and Hunan provinces. He and his wife, Sarah, who comes up in our conversation almost as often as the US studies centre, have been ''awestruck'' by the enormous diversity and quality of Asian cuisine in Sydney. They are looking forward to cooking up complicated Asian recipes for guests.

Gill speaks somewhat to one side of his mouth with a twinkle in his eye, as if there's a wise guy ready to burst out from behind his neatly groomed decorum. Somehow it does not surprise later to learn that he sings and plays the harmonica in a rhythm and blues band.

Australia is the fourth continent they have lived on, and among 60 countries he has visited. They started as newlyweds in 1986 in the northern port city of Dalian where he taught English to university students, and you had to get to the markets early or eat cabbage and potatoes for the week.

Living in Australia fulfils a long-held ambition. Sarah, a research virologist, lived here as a girl when her father worked for the CSIRO, and retains strong personal links. So when a job that was right for her came up — as deputy director of the Westmead Millennium Institute — they grabbed the chance. For Gill, it was an opportunity ''to come and live in the Asia-Pacific again, to be part of this region and watch from this perch the rise of China, what it means for US foreign policy in the region and what it means for US-Australia relations''.

He is a long way from tramping the forests of his native Michigan, which, as a boy from the Detroit suburbs, he thought he might always do. But a choir trip to Europe opened his eyes and mind to the great world. ''From there, I did everything I could to get into a kind of career that would be international, allow me to travel and live abroad.''

His liberal-minded parents — father a small businessman in public relations, mother a homemaker and later an educational registrar — were ''very much advocates of education and having broad and ambitious horizons, so there was nothing standing in my way''.

The China path was set in 1980 with a university internship at a small publishing company where he helped write a book on how to do business with China. The US-China relationship had only just been ''normalised'' and great excitement surrounded the growing interaction between the two countries. ''On my return to university, it was all I really wanted to do, to find out more about this country [China]''. He became fluent in Mandarin as well as French and eventually wrote a doctorate on Chinese arms exports.

In four years under the founding chief executive, Geoff Garrett, the US Studies Centre has attracted nearly 100 people to its employ (many of them part-time), students in droves (about 1300 at last count) and an array of stellar speakers to its events, as well as formidable clout. Its board is weighted with AOs and AMs, including two former Australian ambassadors to the US (Michael Thawley and Dennis Richardson, who is also secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), and captains of industry such as Kevin McCann, the chairman of Origin Energy and Macquarie Group.

The Australian ambassador to the US, Kim Beazley, is on its advisory council, along with former prime ministers John Howard and Bob Hawke, the Ten Network chairman, Lachlan Murdoch, and several heads of American multinationals in Australia.

The new CEO sees his job not as an ''apologist for the US'' but as ''helping remind Australians and Americans just how broad and just how extensive our relationship is''.

''Few Australians realise that the US is by far, by far the biggest investor in Australia,'' Gill says. The popular focus tends to be on the defence and security relationship — the ''Alliance''. But ''while those are issues near and dear to my heart'', he says he is fascinated by the expanse of the relationship across issues ranging from politics, trade, investment, resources and energy to environment, science, agriculture, technology, innovation, and even culture.

Gill is keen to build the centre's advisory work and consequent policy influence. It has $2 million in federal funding for a three-year project on the future of Australia-US relations, with matching support from corporate partners including Dow Chemical, GE, Morgan Stanley, News Corporation, Pratt Industries and Raytheon, many of which are represented on its board.

A project on higher education is in sight, as is a comparative assessment of the role of private philanthropy in the US and Australia. ''We will probably want to do more work in the area of the US-China-Australia triangle'', Gill adds.

His advisory credentials are well established. During his five years at the helm of the highly specialised security and arms proliferation research centre SIPRI in Stockholm, the budget and staff almost doubled, even though it was in financial crisis when he arrived. He is also proud of establishing a program that still runs at the Monterey Institute in California teaching new Chinese foreign ministry recruits on arms control and non-proliferation. ''That program, I think, has made a pretty positive impact'', he says. ''Some of those officials look at those issues in a way that I would say is somewhat more consistent and convergent with the international community than it was previously.''

Over coffee, we talk music. His love of gospel and blues stems from a formative experience of his 1960s youth when Detroit was riven by race riots. His mother's response was to give up their white suburban Methodist church and join an all-black church in a poor area.

Gill has been playing with the same rhythm and blues band since 1985. Seven of them met in Virginia when he was at graduate school. They still play a gig somewhere in the US every year, never missing a reunion, and he would like music and the arts to feature more prominently in the US Studies Centre.

As for Bill Gates, Bates Gill has met him. The Microsoft multibillionaire partly funded some research Gill did on HIV-AIDS in China. They did not talk about the dyslexic coincidence of their names. Gates ''didn't seem to notice,'' Gill says. Anyway, he points out, he was Bates Gill before anyone had heard of Bill Gates. That twinkle again.

On our way out, his name rings across the restaurant. ''Bates!'' A colleague wants him to meet someone. Here and now, everyone wants to know Bates Gill.

This article was originally published by The Sydney Morning Herald