Australian and Chinese flags. Picture: REUTERS/ALY SONG
Australian and Chinese flags. Picture: REUTERS/ALY SONG

China’s economic offensive against Australia is partly designed to warn countries against vocally opposing Beijing’s interests, particularly with Joe Biden looking to unite US allies. Yet it is already showing signs of backfiring.

China last week imposed antidumping duties of up to 212% on Australian wine, the latest in a slew of measures curbing imports from coal to copper to barley. Tensions escalated further on Monday after a Chinese foreign ministry official tweeted a fake photo of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison quickly called on China to apologise for the “repugnant” tweet. China’s foreign ministry, in turn, questioned whether he lacks “a sense of right and wrong” and said overall ties deteriorated because Australia “took wrong measures on issues bearing on China’s core interests.”

To Beijing, the attacks on Australia are meant to deter others such as Canada, the EU and Japan from joining a US-led campaign to counter China’s rise. Communist Party officials see Morrison’s government as one of their most vocal critics, and an easy target: China accounts for about 35% of Australia’s total trade, three times more than the next highest country, Japan. Australia accounts for less than 4% of China’s commerce.

“It is only natural that China wants to sound some precautionary alarm” to warn countries off building an anti-China alliance, said Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Nanjing University. “After all, confrontation is the least wanted by the world now.”

China is betting that most Western countries will avoid provoking Beijing and risking the kind of trade retaliation Australia is suffering, particularly with their economies weighed down by the pandemic. At the same time, it has sought to strengthen ties with Japan, South Korea and nations in Southeast Asia, in part by offering more trade, investment in 5G networks and access to Covid-19 vaccines.

Yet China’s moves are adding to worries about its use of economic coercion, and could end up pushing middle powers closer to the US camp. President-elect Biden has vowed to rebuild relationships with allies damaged by President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies, which would make it more palatable for some allies to align more closely with his administration.

“Biden is planning to resume US international policy after a four-year hiccup,” said Jeff Moon, the US’s assistant trade representative for China for part of the Obama administration, adding that the scope of China’s actions against Australia is “breathtaking”.

“The leverage is to work together,” he added. “That is what they most fear, and they see that coming.”

While it is still unclear how exactly that would work, several key groupings including the Quad — the US, Japan, Australia and India — as well as Five Eyes — the US, Australia, UK, Canada and New Zealand — have been revived in recent years. New initiatives have also been floated, including one that would give countries an alternative to Huawei Technologies for 5G networks and another that would find alternative supply chains to China.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier in November that the Trump administration was formulating a joint retaliation plan that would allow the West to push back against the kind of economic coercion China is inflicting on Australia. The EU also plans to call on the US to seize a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to forge a new global alliance that would counter China, the Financial Times reported on Monday, citing a set of draft policy proposals.

For its part, the Trump administration is continuing to pressure China with moves to prevent some of its biggest companies from accessing US technology. Senior officials have also stepped up visits to Asia ahead of the planned inauguration for Biden on January 20. After a visit to Japan in November, national security adviser Robert O’Brien said leaders in Tokyo saw the Quad as a “game changer.”

“China against any individual country, including quite powerful countries like South Korea or Thailand or even Japan, China would be dominant,” said Malcolm Rifkind, a former British foreign secretary. “But in the real world when you have such a situation, your potential victims join up to ensure a collective and co-ordinated response.”

Weak link

While China has adopted a more aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy epitomised by the Afghan tweet on Monday, it has also used different levels to punish countries that step out of line. Earlier in 2020 the Communist Party-backed Global Times newspaper said China should deliver “public and painful” retaliation to the UK for banning Huawei but avoid a full-fledged confrontation because it saw Britain as the “weak link” in the Five Eyes.

In a phone call with his EU counterpart Josep Borrell last week, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi also sent a tacit warning that the bloc should think twice before strengthening an  alliance with the incoming Biden administration, as the two sides look to complete an investment treaty by the end of the year. “Strategic autonomy is a necessary character for staying independent,” Wang said, adding that it involves “opposing man-made ‘decoupling’, opposing confrontation among different blocs and a new ‘Cold War’”.

Australia, on the other hand, has faced China’s unabashed wrath ever since Morrison’s government called for Beijing to allow independent investigators into Wuhan to discover the origins of the novel coronavirus causing Covid-19. Chen Hong, director of the Australian Studies Centre at East China Normal University who said he had his visa to Australia revoked because he was labelled a national security risk, said Australia’s actions differentiate it from New Zealand, which maintains relatively good ties with Beijing.

“Australia has been purposefully echoing Washington’s anti-China policy and co-ordinated with Trump’s strategic intentions,” Chen said.

Push for talks

In Canberra, however, Australian officials have said Morrison’s government is speaking out for its own interests regardless of the US on issues such as China’s increasing grip over Hong Kong and assertiveness in the South China Sea. Morrison himself has also sought to portray Australia as stuck in the middle of the US and China — a view shared by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who said in an interview that many nations in Asia are not keen to join an anti-China bloc.

Even after he called on China to apologise for the Afghan tweet on Monday, Morrison again sought to restart talks with Beijing with no conditions.

“Countries around the world are watching this, they are seeing how Australia is seeking to resolve these issues and they are seeing these responses,” Morrison told reporters on Monday. “This impacts not just on the relationship here, but with so many other sovereign nations not only in our own region, but like-minded countries around the world.”

The spat has only hardened attitudes towards China within Australia, to the point where even business groups have stopped pushing for warmer ties, according to Natasha Kassam, a former Australian diplomat who worked in China and is now a research fellow at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute. At the same time, she said, it’s “impossible to imagine” China apologising to Australia.

“While there may be an emboldening of countries in the region responding to China,” she said, “it’s equally likely that a number of countries will see the way in which Australia’s export industry has been punished and think twice about making their own criticisms.”


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