Even though China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, its relations with Canberra remain strained. As Australia is a US ally, China tends to regard Canberra’s critical stance on its policies and actions as reflecting US interests, as in Australia’s call for an international investigation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Australia, on the other hand, tends to regard China as seeking to dominate the region, including Australia, which should accept Beijing’s view of the new regional order.
As former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull wrote in his memoir, China’s conduct toward Australia amounts to “bullying,” and attempting to coerce Australia economically.
At the same time, China is engaged in large-scale espionage in Australia.
While many countries spy on Australia, “what’s become increasingly apparent over the last decade is the industrial scale, scope and effectiveness of Chinese intelligence gathering, and in particular cyberespionage,” Turnbull wrote.
“They do more of it than any one else, by far... They target commercial secrets, especially in technology, even where they have no connection with national security. And, finally, they’re very good at it. A last point, which speaks to the growing confidence of China, is that they’re not embarrassed by being caught,” he wrote.
Australia has been taking steps to prevent China from doing all this and more which has soured their relationship, but, so far, Chinese pressure has not been exercised publicly.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic, which started in Wuhan, China, has brought differences into the open.
It started with Australia pushing for an international inquiry into the pandemic, which would obviously include its origins in Wuhan and the level of transparency about its spread, as well as the “China-centric” role of the WHO (as US President Donald Trump put it), which portrayed China’s handling of the pandemic favorably; not withstanding Beijing’s failure to communicate the outbreak for some time, denying other countries valuable time to tackle it head on, and reduce the number of infections and fatalities that followed all over the world.
Australia sought to present its call for an international inquiry, possibly by an agency with powers similar to those of international weapons inspectors, as a precaution to minimize future tragedies, but China was not buying that, describing Australia as “dancing to the tune of another country” and “parroting what those Americans have asserted.”
Chinese Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye (成競業) said that Canberra’s push for an international inquiry about the pandemic would result in reprisals, with Beijing boycotting lucrative economic exchanges, such as Chinese students studying in Australia, Chinese tourism and purchases of Australian beef.
This is a very serious threat to the Australian economy, with China accounting for one-quarter of all Australian exports, or A$153 billion (US$98.5 billion) in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
Despite irritants in the relationship in the past few years, exports have been growing at 10 percent a year for the past five years. For instance, exports to China of iron ore and coal reportedly account for 25 percent of the total value.
If China means what it says, this would have a huge detrimental effect on the Australian economy, especially during the post-pandemic economic restructuring phase.
While previous strains in Australia-China relations did not fundamentally affect trade, apart from China delaying the clearance of some Australian goods, Canberra had not issued such a public threat as an inquiry.
Even though the threat to the economy is serious, Australia is not backing down, although it cannot instigate an inquiry on its own.
Although Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s telephone calls on the issue with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron do not seem to have elicited much interest, he is persisting.
Trump might find it embarrassing for China, but he is following an isolationist policy when it comes to international institutions and has suspended US financial contributions to the WHO.
It could be that the call for an inquiry might simply fade away as Australia backs off, especially as there is considerable internal pressure from business interests and others. The economic stakes are quite high, with not much political or strategic gain.
At the same time, any backing down by China might see Australia be more critical of Beijing’s regional policies, such as in the South China Sea, where it is strongly asserting its control over disputed islands.
It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.
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