Australia: paying the price for angering Beijing

Australia: paying the price for angering Beijing

 For decades, Australia has enjoyed close economic ties with China, its largest export market. But this year relations between the countries have gone into a “downward spiral”, said John Power in the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong). In April, Canberra infuriated Beijing by calling for an international inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. 

China then slapped restrictions on key Australian exports, such as barley, beef, coal and copper. Last month, the Chinese embassy in Canberra published a list of grievances against Australia, accusing it of whipping up anti-Chinese feeling and of unfairly excluding Huawei from its 5G network. Now China is sharply escalating its trade war, said Prianka Srinivasan on ABC News (Sydney). It has slapped a tax on Australian wine of up to 212%; lobsters have been stranded at Chinese airports. 

Supposedly these are “anti-dumping” (fair-price protection) measures. But they are mostly seen as a political reaction. Australia had once hoped that welcoming China into the club of global trade and diplomacy would encourage it to liberalise, said The Sydney Morning Herald. Instead, Beijing’s growing influence has led to “increasing sensitivity to criticism and a willingness to strike out when its interests are threatened”. They call it “wolf warrior” diplomacy, and it can be vicious. The Chinese Foreign Ministry shared a fake image of a smiling Australian soldier cutting the throat of a child in Afghanistan after an inquiry found evidence of Australian war crimes. 

Canberra bears some responsibility for the breakdown in relations too, said Gareth Evans in The ASEAN Post (Kuala Lumpur). Its politicians shamelessly echo America’s anti-China rhetoric; and Chinese media in Australia have been targeted in “over-the-top” police raids. Of course Australia has the right to challenge Beijing’s most egregious behaviour. But ultimately it’s only a “middleweight” nation highly dependent on China, which takes more than a third of its total exports. 

Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, has tried to calm the tensions, saying he wants a “happy coexistence” with China, said Ken Moak on the Asia Times (Hong Kong). His comments were a tacit acknowledgement that “Australia needs China more than it wants to admit”. And whatever happens now, the tensions offer an “illuminating glimpse” of the future, said Richard McGregor in the FT. Beijing’s message to other trading partners is clear: keep your nose out of our affairs, and allow Chinese firms into your market – or you’ll risk retribution too.