“If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy”. This phrase, which is attributed to a Chinese government official, has been spread throughout the Australian press in recent days. It deserves resonance far beyond the coast of this country.
The rapid deterioration in Beijing-Canberra relations is much more than a bilateral matter. It shows how a more confident China is now trying to intimidate nations far from its shores by resorting to a bullying style of “wolf warrior” diplomacy. The treatment of Australia sets a worrying precedent as China is making demands that affect the country’s domestic system and undermine fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression.
Democratic countries should monitor this conflict closely and be ready to support each other in defending themselves against Chinese pressure. Without such coordination, Beijing will be encouraged in its efforts to divide and rule, and to cause real political and economic damage to democratic countries that oppose its will.
Australia has been successfully riding two horses for several decades. It has had a strategic alliance with the US and has developed a close economic relationship with China. China is the largest export market, and Chinese demand has helped fuel Australian growth for many decades.
This economic dependence on China would always put Australia in a difficult position if – like now – relations between China and the West deteriorate. Beijing has made it clear that Australia is far too closely tied to U.S. foreign policy on a range of issues from the South China Sea to overseas investment, 5G technology and Covid-19. In response, it is turning the economic screw. China has imposed tariffs on Australian barley exports, restricted beef imports and launched an anti-dumping investigation into Australian wine. Further action could be in the works if Australia “doesn’t correct its mistakes”.
The corrections Beijing is calling for are not just about foreign policy or trade. In a 14-point memo to the Australian media outlining China’s grievances, Beijing also pointed out what it sees as hostile media coverage – as well as funding from the Australian government for think tanks that have produced work that Beijing does do not like. Since Beijing cannot tolerate freedom of speech at home, it now appears intended to control freedom of speech overseas as well.
China clearly believes it is in a good position to intimidate Australia – a country that, despite its vast land mass, has only 25 million people. At the same time, Beijing seems concerned about any suggestion that Australia is part of a wider community of democratic nations that might come to its support. When Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US – a group known as “Five Eyes” – recently issued a joint statement on Hong Kong, the State Department spokesman in Beijing replied, “Whether they have Five Eyes or not 10 eyes, if they dare to damage China’s sovereignty. . . They should be careful not to get their eyes poked and blinded. “
Such language does not help Beijing’s case. In an ideal world, tempers will cool in both Beijing and Canberra, and China will use a change of government in Washington to curb its diplomats as “wolf warriors”.
If this does not happen, democratic countries should coordinate their responses to China’s intimidation efforts. As Benjamin Franklin put it in the 18th century, “We must all hang together, or most surely, we will all hang separately.”