RELATIONS BETWEEN AUSTRALIA and China have turned from frosty to nasty.
After Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted an artwork of an Australian soldier threatening to slit a child’s throat with a knife — a graphic image Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison called repugnant and for whose posting he demanded an apology — Beijing doubled down with Zhao’s colleague, Hua Chunying, saying that it was Australia that should be showing shame in the wake of a damning war crimes investigation.
The original post was in response to the findings of Australia’s Brereton inquiry that 19 of the country’s special forces should face criminal investigation for the murder of at least 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners.
When releasing the inquiry’s findings earlier this month, the head of the Australian Defence Force, Angus Campbell, ‘sincerely and unreservedly’ apologised to the Afghan people for the ‘wrongdoing’ of special forces, which suggests that Hua intended to rub salt into a wound.
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?
Beijing has been claiming the fault for deteriorating relations lies on Canberra’s side ever since Morrison called in April for an international inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Relations had been on the down for several years before that, but Morrison’s call hit a nerve in Beijing. So, too, did Australia’s crackdown on foreign interference in its domestic politics, a campaign Beijing takes to be aimed at itself, and Canberra’s repeated criticism of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and Chinese military exercises around Taiwan.
In April, Australia’s exports of wine, barley, beef and coal started to be subjected to new tariffs, anti-subsidy investigations and hold-ups at customs posts. The latest trade punishment is the imposition from November 28 of anti-dumping duties of 107.1% (taking the total tariff to 212.1%) on wine imported from Australia. Nearly two-fifths of Australia’s wine exports go to China, which buys around one-third of Australia’s merchandise exports overall.
In September, the last two reporters from Australian news organisations in China were pulled out of the country following their questioning by authorities in connecting with the detention in August of CGTN anchor, Cheng Lei, who is a Chinese-born Australian. The month before, Australia had cautioned its citizens about the risk of arbitrary detention in China, a warning dismissed by China at the time as disinformation.
On November 18, Australian media published a list of 14 ‘grievances’ the Chinese embassy had given them. They include blocking Chinese investments in Australia on national security grounds, criticising the Party over Hong Kong and Xinjiang and allowing negative coverage of China in the media.
That same list could have been handed to US and European media. What makes Beijing more unhappy about Australia is the deepening security ties between it and the three other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, ‘the Quad’, India, Japan and the United States.
One recent example is the landmark defence treaty agreed in principle by Morrison and Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga. Another is Australia’s participation for the second time in this month’s Malabar 2020 naval exercises with India, Japan and the United States.
This coming month’s annual Indonesia-Australia-India senior officials’ meeting is likely to consider creating trilateral naval exercises among those three countries, too.
This context and the continuing stinging attacks on Canberra suggests to this Bystander that Beijing sees it as the emerging leader of the region’s ‘middle powers’ — nations that share strategic concerns over China’s growing assertiveness in their neighbourhood and the staying power of the United States. As such, Morrison’s government has to be taken down a peg, not least as a deterrence to successor Australian governments and other countries in the region from confronting China,