World

Canberra strengthens defence ties with Japan. Australia tops list of countries affected by China’s coercive measures. Divided views on how to find a diplomatic fix. By Jonathan Pearlman.

China–Australia ties worsen over Zhao tweet

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian attends at a Beijing press conference this year.
Credit: Kyodo via AP Images

China’s tweet

Beijing: Zhao Lijian, a 48-year-old Chinese foreign ministry official, was one of the country’s first diplomats to join Twitter and has built his career on reliably provocative tweets. He was famously described as a “racist disgrace” by Susan Rice, the former United States national security adviser, after he responded to criticism of China’s mass detention of Uygurs by attacking American racism.

Earlier this year, he promoted the conspiracy theory that Covid-19 was brought to Wuhan by American soldiers taking part in the Military World Games.

This week, Zhao turned his sights on Australia, pinning a tweet to the top of his feed that featured a Photoshopped image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child – a reference to the recent war crimes inquiry that found Australian special forces were involved in murdering at least 39 Afghans.

Zhao likes to bait rivals, and his tweet was a significant indicator of the torrid state of ties between Australia and its largest trading partner.

At a press conference on Monday, Scott Morrison described Zhao’s tweet as “repugnant” and demanded an apology from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post,” Morrison said.

No apology was forthcoming. Instead, China’s foreign ministry said Australia’s government should “feel ashamed” about the Afghan war crimes. On Tuesday, the Chinese embassy in Canberra went further, saying the Australian government had overreacted and was trying to “stoke domestic nationalism”.

Morrison called on Twitter to remove Zhao’s tweet, although the site appeared to reject the request. Twitter is banned in China.

Relationship breakdown

In November 2014, China’s president, Xi Jinping, made a six-day visit to Australia, during which he and Tony Abbott celebrated the signing of a long-awaited free trade deal. Welcoming Xi to parliament, Abbott said: “Truly, no Chinese leader has ever been anything like such a good friend to Australia.”

Much has changed since then. Morrison is set to become the first Australian prime minister not to visit China since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1972. He has not been invited.

The breakdown in relations began about 2017, when Australia introduced legislation to combat foreign interference – a move widely seen as being aimed at Beijing. China was also angry about Australia’s decision to block a series of Chinese investments. And, in 2018, Australia became the first country to ban Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from taking part in the rollout of its 5G mobile network.

But relations have further deteriorated in the past year. China reacted angrily to Australia’s criticisms of its mass detention of Uygurs and its erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Its government was also incensed by Australia’s demand for an inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic – a move that appeared to be directed at Beijing.

Growing tensions between Washington and Beijing have also led to greater Chinese wariness of Australia, a stalwart ally of the US. Australia has insisted it does not share the American view of China as a strategic rival, but it has strengthened defence ties with Japan and formed an evolving partnership – known as “the Quad” – with the US, Japan and India.

China recently listed its various grievances in a document presented by the Chinese embassy to a Nine media journalist. The embassy raised 14 complaints, including concerns about the federal government’s foreign veto bill that will allow it to block Victoria’s agreement to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The bill is due to pass, with Labor’s support.

The fallout

China is by far the largest buyer of Australian exports, accounting for 35 per cent of total purchases of Australian goods and services last year – more than the next six countries combined. But, as ties have soured, China has restricted purchases of selected Australian goods.

Most recently, China imposed tariffs of up to 212 per cent on Australian wine. Other exports – worth about $20 billion – have also been targeted, including beef, barley, coal, timber and seafood, though China has cited health, administrative or trade-related reasons for imposing these measures, rather than presenting them as punishments.

China has also warned tourists and students to avoid visiting Australia, claiming they may be subject to racial discrimination. Yet sales of Australia’s iron ore to China have continued – a resource that accounts for about 40 per cent of our total exports to China.

Beyond economic sanctions, China has also imposed a freeze on ministerial visits and contacts and has barred some visits by Australian MPs and journalists. Some Australians in China, most prominently the writer Yang Hengjun, have been detained or given seemingly harsh sentences.

Australia is not the only country to face such punishment from China. Canada, for instance, has been targeted after Canadian authorities detained a Huawei executive following an extradition request by the US. But Australia appears to be among the countries hardest hit.

Analysis in September by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found China imposed 152 coercive measures against 27 countries between 2010 and 2020, and that such coercion had dramatically increased since 2018.

The institute – which the Chinese embassy has labelled “anti-China” – found Australia was subjected to the highest number of measures, 17, followed by Canada with 10 and the US, 9.

The solutions

For Australia, there is no immediate fix to its deteriorating ties with China, partly because some of the main causes of the deterioration are beyond Australia’s control.

Following three decades of spectacular economic growth, China, which has a population of 1.4 billion, now has the world’s second-largest economy and the second-highest military budget, behind the US. But it is quickly catching up and is already challenging the US’s post-World War II dominance of Asia. It is also a repressive one-party state, led by an increasingly brazen and powerful president.

In contrast, Australia is a democracy of 25 million people that bases its security in the region on its alliance with the US. Polling earlier this year by the Lowy Institute found 78 per cent of Australians believe the US alliance is important for Australia’s security; support has remained above 70 per cent for the past four years, despite the unpopularity in Australia of Donald Trump.

But opinion about how Australia should deal with China – including among MPs – is fiercely divided. Some believe China is making an example of Australia, and that the Morrison government should strongly resist; others believe China is adjusting to its new position of global power and that Australia, too, will have to adjust by becoming more accommodating and less confrontational.

Either way, the difficulties in the China relationship demand shrewd diplomacy. Rather than holding a press conference this week to denounce Zhao’s trolling, Morrison, for instance, could have allowed a diplomat or minister to respond. Navigating the China relationship is difficult. Missteps will continue – but their consequences are becoming more serious, and more costly. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2020 as "China–Australia ties worsen over ‘repugnant’ Zhao tweet".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.