A month ago we noted how Joe Biden’s presidential win presented a chance to slow the souring of relations between China and Australia. The idea was that Biden’s arrival might allow for a reset of Washington’s acrimonious relationship with Beijing, with spillover benefits for Canberra, which is taking collateral damage as the primary target for Chinese allegations of hostile behaviour (see WiC518).
Hopes of defusing some of these tensions disappeared this week after an incendiary tweet by Zhao Lijian, a spokesman at China’s foreign ministry, featuring a computer-generated image of an Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of an Afghan child. “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace,” the caption added.
“The Chinese government should be utterly ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes,” raged Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, castigating the tweet as “truly repugnant”.
Zhao was referencing the findings of an investigation into unlawful killings by Australian troops in Afghanistan, with at least 19 soldiers now facing criminal charges. But Canberra was disgusted, seeing Zhao’s goading as another example of the ‘wolf warrior’ style being adopted by China’s diplomats.
China’s foreign ministry has a reputation for fury at any criticism from overseas that “hurts the feelings of the Chinese people” (see WiC319). Yet any notion that Zhao had gone too far was rejected the following day by Hua Chunying, his boss. “The Australian side is reacting so strongly to my colleague’s Twitter – does that mean that they think the cold-blooded murder of Afghan innocent civilians is justified while other peoples’ condemnations of such crimes are not justified? Afghan lives matter,” she scolded.
Beijing is doing more than bluster in its confrontation with Canberra after picking a range of Australian goods for retribution in an unofficial trade war. The row worsened after Morrison called for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19 (see WiC496) – a move the Chinese government saw as an attack on its handling of the coronavirus outbreak. However, Hua reiterated other complaints this week, drawing from a 14-point list of grievances compiled by the Chinese embassy in Australia.
“Australia treats China’s goodwill with evil,” another belligerent editorial in the Global Times added on Monday. “Its politics, military and culture should stay away from China. Let’s assume that the two countries are not on the same planet.”
That sense of separation is starting to play out in commercial terms, with more punishment meted out last weekend with duties of more than 200% on Australian wine. The impact will be “devastating”, the head of the national association of grape and wine producers is warning.
Shipments of coking coal have also run into trouble, with an unofficial ban on imports preventing dozens of ships from unloading in China, and forcing down the price of Australian coal by a quarter in the last month. Exports of meat, barley, seafood, timber and cotton have also been disrupted through a combination of measures.
Morrison is trying to highlight the wider repercussions of the crisis, with claims that other countries are watching China’s behaviour closely. Yet there is also a sense that this is the point of Beijing’s approach. The moral of the story: if you antagonise one of your best customers, you only have yourselves to blame.
There is a danger of overreach in China’s confrontational stance if other countries coalesce against what they perceive as predatory behaviour. In that context the Financial Times reported this weekend on proposals from the European Union to reinvigorate its relationship with Washington to combat the challenge of “authoritarian powers”.
“As open democratic societies and market economies, the EU and the US agree on the strategic challenge presented by China’s growing international assertiveness, even if we do not always agree on the best way to address this,” it added. That coalition might include Canberra.
And, of course, China’s trade war with Australia reveals it still relies on certain exports from the country. Conspicuously absent from the list of banned goods is Aussie iron ore – a sign that China would struggle to find sufficient supplies of that vital commodity elsewhere.
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