China sends a message with Australian action

China sends a message with Australian action

The author is a Senior Fellow at the Lowy Institute

A good starting point for looking into the future in a China dominated world is Australia.

The Beijing Embassy in Canberra last week handed the local media a short document containing 14 complaints that China says is the cause of rapidly deteriorating relations with Australia.

The document contains many known complaints: According to Beijing, Canberra has encroached on its sovereignty by making critical statements about Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea and Xinjiang and wrongly excluded Chinese companies like Huawei from the Australian 5G telecommunications network.

The really revealing detail, however, lay in the other numerous grievances of hostile coverage in the local media, restrictions on foreign investment, critical think-tank reports, and MPs outspoken about human rights.

As Rush Doshi of the Brookings Institution in Washington notes, the list reveals its hypocrisy. Finally, Beijing routinely attacks its critics through its state-controlled media, regulates local think tank production, reviews proposals for foreign investment, and regulates speech by Chinese officials.

China’s most prominent Oceania scholar followed up the publication of the document by labeling Australian foreign policy under a litany of other pejoratives as “bizarre,” “immature,” “obstinate,” “martial,” “thoughtless” and “youthful”.

The list of complaints also complains that Australia is forcing the Victoria government to abandon its participation in the Belt and Road Initiative as this goes against Canberra’s refusal to join Beijing’s flagship infrastructure program.

Needless to say, a Chinese provincial party secretary who signed an agreement with Australia that Beijing did not approve will be dismissed immediately.

It’s no wonder Australia has become the canary of an emerging illiberal Chinese world order. Australia is a close ally of the US and a core member of the Anglosphere’s “Five Eyes” intelligence partnership.

Relations between Australia and China have been deteriorating for several years, but the downward spiral has accelerated in recent months. Two turning points are worth highlighting this year: Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the Covid-19 outbreak and police raids against Chinese-Australians and Chinese media in Australia on allegations of covert interference with domestic politics.

China’s response has been cruel and resulted in trade restrictions on several Australian exports such as wine, beef, timber, barley and coal.

The trade barriers were initially legitimate as they were allegedly based on anti-dumping claims and health concerns. For the past few weeks, the Beijing Department of Commerce has not bothered and issued informal instructions to customs to block Australian goods on arrival.

Australian leaders have always said that the country does not have to choose between its security ally (US) and its economic partner (China). Such a tortuous spin doesn’t go away.

It is true that Australia has been diplomatically awkward at times in dealing with Beijing, particularly in the way it unilaterally called for the Covid-19 investigation and in managing proposals to limit Chinese investment in the country.

Prominent Australians also criticized Canberra’s hard line, saying the intelligence services took over politics at the expense of diplomacy and commercial interests.

They also complain that the efforts of Australian leaders to stay on the right side of Donald Trump have made them look like they are dutifully falling behind him. Some in the business world are demanding that Canberra find ways to work with China to save the relationship. However, other democracies should take note of Beijing’s behavior as they may be the next target.

The message is clear. When your media is overly critical, when your think tanks produce negative reports, when your MPs continue to criticize, when you investigate the Communist Party’s influence in your community and politics, and when you do not allow Chinese state and private companies access to your market, and so on, you will also be vulnerable to Beijing’s retaliation.

In terms of documents, Beijing’s “14 complaints” do not quite match the “long telegram” sent by George Kennan in 1946 that laid the foundation for US Cold War containment policy.

But it offers an illuminating roadmap for a future in which a powerful China will require its political system to be respected and its human rights record to remain outside of overseas control.