International relations | Australia, East Asia

19 July 2021

Australia and China have been taking a more confrontational approach with one another, and while the issues at hand may not seem central, they are a sign of deeper danger, Fan Yang writes.

Even by 2018, it seemed Australia-China bilateral relations were approaching their worst shape in a decade, and in the last year, the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated even further, at a critical time for the region.

Throughout 2020, Australia-China relations plunged to new depths, with unprecedented consequences for trade and other economic ties.

While there were issues beforehand, on 19 April 2020, the Morrison government raised the tempo with its proposal of a global investigation into China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. This, perhaps deliberately, suggested China may be responsible for the global pandemic, and immediately led to backlash from the Chinese Government.

Subsequently, Australia and China have been embroiled in escalating trade disputes. Since May 2020, China started a series of trade sanctions against Australian products.

These repercussions involved restrictions on Australian beef, barley, cotton, thermal coal, timber, copper, and lobster imports, on account of the ‘public health concerns in the global pandemic’ or ‘quota restrictions’. The sanctions also extended to imposing higher tariffs on other Australian products such as wine.

In June, China further hit the Australian economy with a series of travel warnings issued by the Chinese embassy in Australia and China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Chinese authorities alarmed Chinese citizens, warning them not to travel or study in Australia due to a significant increase in racist attacks on Chinese and Asian people.

This series of measures dramatically disadvantaged Australia’s agriculture, mining, manufacturing, tourism, and higher education industries, and in response, the Australian Government decided to continue imposing anti-dumping duties on Chinese imports.

More on this: Containing China’s assertiveness with diplomacy

Stricter rules for foreign investment in sensitive assets were also introduced and were interpreted as targeting Chinese investment in Australia, putting state or university collaboration with China under pressure. The back-and-forth further escalated in December, when Australia lodged a dispute against China at the World Trade Organization.

Along with the trade tension, diplomatic disputes between the two countries have also become more intense. In July, the Morrison government promised to provide ‘safe haven’ to Hong Kong residents with China introducing the national security law to the city.

In turn, the Chinese embassy in Australia condemned the government for political interference in what it called China’s domestic affairs.

Since June, Australia has also been revoking Chinese scholar visas and targeting Chinese media officials in Canberra, in the name of eliminating Chinese political interference in Australia.

In return, in September, Chinese national security investigated two Australian journalists, Bill Birtles and Mike Smith, forcing them to leave China, and around this time a group of Australian citizens were reported to be arbitrarily detained in China.

Then, in November, Chinese foreign affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian posted a controversial doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to a child in Afghanistan on his official Twitter account, attacking the conduct of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. Australia later requested an apology from China, but received no response.

More on this: Democracy Sausage: Will Australia-China relations continue to spiral?

This series of diplomatic incidents lies on the background of Australia’s broader security concerns, which characterise China’s growth as a threat to the Asia-Pacific region. In response, Australia has been consolidating collaboration with its regional allies and partners, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and India.

This is important because while a normalised economic partnership would achieve mutual benefit for Australia and China, these trade and diplomatic disputes seem to be long-term threats, not simply political manoeuvres.

Repeatedly, both countries have demanded apologies to apparently resolve tension, but this will not be an easy task with so much at stake. Behind the scenes of the scuffling, both Australia and China have been seeking to diversify their supply chains to limit dependence on one another.

Hovering above these bilateral and diplomatic disputes is very dangerous ‘drums of war’ discourse, hyped up by some parts of the Australian media since April 2020 and repeated recently. That this could ever be considered an option speaks volumes to the escalating tension.

That both countries have been taking this more confrontational approach to their public announcements shows they are willing to risk further escalating tension in return for showing strength. That mutual economic benefits cede to national political and ideological interests in this discourse shows there may be danger to come.

It’s important for Australia to remember that while China remains Australia’s largest trading partner, Australia is only listed as the sixth largest trading partner for China, following European Union, Taiwan, South Korea, the United States, and Japan. This asymmetric trade relationship could put Australia at a disadvantage if tensions increase.

In the end, Australia and China both need to consider how these smaller disputes are shaping the region into the future. Wine tariffs and lobster exports might not seem like much, but if leaders are willing to put aside mutual benefit in return for ‘patriotic’ headlines, there could be much more trouble on the way.

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