The worrying precedent in China’s quarrel with Australia

“If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy”. That sentence, attributed to a Chinese government official, has been splashed all over the Australian press in recent days. It deserves to resonate well beyond that country’s shores.

The rapid deterioration in the relationship between Beijing and Canberra is much more than a bilateral affair. It demonstrates how a more assertive China is now seeking to intimidate nations that are a long way from its shores, by resorting to a bullying style of “wolf warrior” diplomacy. The treatment of Australia sets a worrying precedent since China is making demands that would impinge upon the country’s domestic system — affecting basic liberties such as freedom of speech.

Democratic countries should watch this conflict closely and be prepared to support each other in pushing back against Chinese pressure. Without such co-ordination, Beijing will be encouraged in its efforts to divide and rule, inflicting real political and economic damage on democratic countries that defy its will.

For some decades, Australia has successfully ridden two horses. It has maintained a strategic alliance with the US and developed a close economic relationship with China. China is the largest market for its exports, and Chinese demand has helped propel many decades of Australian growth.

This economic reliance on China was always likely to put Australia in an awkward position if — as is happening now — relations between China and the west deteriorated. Beijing has made it clear that it regards Australia as far too closely aligned to US foreign policy on a range of issues from the South China Sea to inward investment, 5G technology and Covid-19. In response, it is turning the economic screw. China has put tariffs on exports of Australian barley, restricted beef imports and started an anti-dumping inquiry into Australian wine. It has said further measures could be in the works, if Australia does not “correct its mistakes”.

The corrections that Beijing is demanding are not simply to do with foreign policy or trade. In a 14-point memo handed to the Australian media outlining China’s grievances, Beijing also pointed to what it regards as hostile media reporting — as well as Australian government financing for think-tanks that have produced work Beijing dislikes. Unable to tolerate free speech at home, Beijing now appears intent on controlling speech overseas as well.

China clearly feels that it is in a good position to intimidate Australia — a country which, despite its vast landmass, has a population of just 25m people. At the same time, Beijing appears anxious about any suggestion that Australia is part of a broader community of democratic nations that could come to its support. When Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US — a grouping known as the “Five Eyes” — recently released a joint statement on Hong Kong, the foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing responded: “No matter if they have Five Eyes or 10 eyes, if they dare to harm China’s sovereignty . . . they should beware of their eyes being 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 take advantage of a change of administration in Washington to rein in its “wolf-warrior” diplomats.

If that does not happen, democratic countries should co-ordinate their responses to Chinese efforts at intimidation. As Benjamin Franklin put it in the 18th century: “We must all hang together or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

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