Lionel Barber is a former editor of the Financial Times and chairman of the Tate art gallery. He is the author of “The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times.”
When the Australian government asked last April for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, few anticipated the damage this would cause to bilateral relations with China.
Highly sensitive about accusations of shutting down COVID, Beijing has stepped up trade sanctions in various forms on Australian beef, barley, coal, timber and most recently the wine industry. Overall, about $ 21 billion of Australia’s $ 147 billion of exports of goods and services to China have been affected. Only iron ore – for which China remains dependent on supplies for the mighty steel sector – has been saved.
China has for years used access to its domestic market as a weapon against other Asian neighbors such as Japan and South Korea which have drawn its ire. As the cost of the economy increases, some business leaders in Australia are getting nervous. “We don’t understand why the Federal Government is at odds with our biggest customer,” James Robson, owner of Ross Hill Wines in New South Wales, told Australian national broadcaster ABC.
China has upped its stakes against Australia with “warrior wolf” diplomacy, a mixture of taunts and threats that culminated this month in a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman tweeting a fake image of a grinning soldier holding a bloodied knife to a child’s throat.
The post is intended to highlight allegations of extrajudicial killings and harassment by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, which Canberra authorities are investigating. The tweet is also a form of defense as a violation. China implicitly accuses Australia of having double standards, a way of fending off criticism of China’s human rights abuses against the Uigher population in Xinjiang.
While Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s outraged response is somewhat implausible (he demands the right of reply to WeChat and is undoubtedly abused), China’s economic pressures highlight a broader strategic dilemma for Australia: how to balance relationships with its biggest economy customers while maintaining independent decision-making and dependability security in the US
Australia’s maneuvering space hinges on a regional balance of which America’s presence in the Pacific is paramount. It is worth remembering that “The Land Down Under” has fought in almost every major “Western” war including World Wars I and II, Vietnam and Afghanistan. But in the 21st century, Australia, demographically and economically, has shifted from a post-colonial, “Western” country to a more “Asian” country that lies under the shadow of an increasingly powerful China.
Back in the mid-1990s, amid suspicions that Canberra was siding with the US for greater autonomy for Hong Kong and Taiwan, China’s response was characteristically pointed. A Chinese publication compared Australia to bats that were loyal to mammals when they were on the rise, but later declared themselves birds when the birds were victorious.
During Morrison’s time, these diplomatic relations became increasingly awkward. “Our preference is not to be forced into any binary options,” he said, acknowledging that foreign policy challenges for all Indo-Pacific countries in an era of global competition between the US and China are more complex than during the Cold War.
Over the past four years, the Trump administration’s strong outgoing approach to China has been felt from Europe to Asia. Australia’s conservative government has responded accordingly. In 2018, China became the first country to publicly ban China’s Huawei Technologies from fifth-generation wireless networks, or 5G. As members of the invaluable Five Eyes intelligence alliance which also includes the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, they remain determined to stay close to Washington, be it Republican or Democrat in charge of the White House.
During Obama’s presidency, the US expressed a “leaning” toward Asia, but Australia felt that the substance of the slogan was lacking in reality. Recently, even as its economic dependence on China has grown, Australia’s foreign policy has tilted more towards the security dimension.
These include the status of a pending troop agreement with Japan, greater attention to Southeast Asia and closer ties with the EU. By 2021, this could lead to Australia joining the D-10 forum allegedly containing democratic states hosted by Boris Johnson’s government in the UK which will include India, Japan and South Korea.
Still, grand strategies are no substitute for sound day-to-day diplomacy. Veteran diplomats were surprised by Morrison responding to a tweet from a mid-level Chinese diplomat, despite being a young nationalist with 750,000 followers on Twitter.
A more effective approach would be a more measured Japanese-style criticism or a statement of collective solidarity by like-minded allies. The latter is sure to be a safer bet than the Australian crossfire style, highlighted by calls for an investigation into the origins of COVID. In retrospect, it appears that what Sir Humphrey Appleby, the fictional British civil servant in the political satire “Yes Minister,” would call “very brave” (translation: judged poorly).
However, many countries are paying attention to how Australia’s frank approach to China works. In London, where anti-Chinese sentiment in the ruling Conservative party has persisted, the view is that closer economic ties with China leave countries vulnerable to political intimidation. In this reading, Australia’s stand will prove to be not only courageous but also smart.