Australia is paying a heavy price for taking the lead in demanding a global probe into China’s handling the coronavirus crisis, a demand that has prompted retaliatory Chinese tariffs on Australian goods and angry propaganda from Beijing accusing Canberra of being a U.S. lackey.
It’s no secret rising U.S.-China tensions have created a sticky situation for a range of countries that prize themselves as democracies and allies of America, but who are increasingly dependent on the lure of Chinese trade and investments for economic growth.
Japan, South Korea, India, even the European Union all face such a predicament as nations who — like Australia — list China as a top trading partner. Trying to avoid picking sides when, as now, Washington and Beijing are in sharp disagreement can be difficult.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told a gathering of German ambassadors on Monday that “analysts have long talked about the end of an American-led system and the arrival of an Asian century,” the Associated Press reported. “This is now happening in front of our eyes” as the U.S. and China struggle for control of the narrative behind the global COVID-19 pandemic.
For Australia, the difficulty of choosing is particularly acute.
“Australia has been on the front lines of Chinese bullying for several years now because it finds itself overwhelmingly economically linked to China,” said Amy Searight, a former Pentagon Asia specialist. She noted that about a third of all Australian exports — everything from iron ore to barley and wine — currently is sold to China.
China is a major investor in the Australian economy and Chinese-Australian voters are a significant slice of the electorate.
“The U.S. and other democracies are Australia’s closest strategic allies, but because of China’s status as Australia’s largest economic partner, Beijing sees an opportunity to pull Australia away from the United States,” said Ms. Searight, now with the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
It’s a reality that burst to the fore last week when China slapped tariffs of more than 80% on Australian barley imports — a move analysts say was taken in open retaliation to Australia’s calls for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.
There is scientific consensus the virus first emerged in Wuhan, China. But its actual origin, whether from a laboratory or a food market, remains a subject of debate among scientists and intelligence officials that Beijing knows could be influenced by such an investigation.
The Trump administration has also called for an inquiry, and well over 100 other nations banded together last week to co-sponsor a World Health Organization motion to open a probe. But the final measure, which calls for an independent look at the origins of the virus outbreak at an unspecified time in the future, was so watered down that even China agreed to vote for it.
Even so, Australia’s role as the first nation to have called for it more than a month ago has remained a particularly stinging thorn in China’s side.
U.S. media may have paid little attention back in mid-April, when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne began pushing for the probe, but the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing was outraged.
Within days, the state-controlled media in Beijing were hitting Canberra with subversive social media sprays and waves of articles in the English-language versions of such party-controlled outlets as Global Times, threatening to punish the Australians for “pandering” to Washington and engaging in toxic politics against China.
The Chinese attacks were not subtle, emphasizing Australia’s economic ties to China, with one Global Times article openly lamenting that: “Although it has been harvesting profits from its trade with China, Australia still constantly chooses to sabotage the bilateral relationship.”
Chinese Ambassador to Canberra Cheng Jingye warned in one interview that if Australia didn’t ease off its demand for a probe into the coronavirus’ origins, Chinese elites might pull their kids from Australian universities — some which depend on revenue from the more than 160,000 Chinese-born students studying in Australia.
Devin T. Stewart, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York City, said “economic coercion and disinformation are China’s two go-to tactics” when it seeks to exert pressure on a nation it perceives to be within its realm of influence.
What’s new, Mr. Stewart said in an interview, is that “this is probably the first time Beijing has combined both of these tactics for simultaneous use against Australia specifically.”
Some of China’s reaction is defensiveness over its early handling of the virus and anger at the U.S.-led campaign to blame the Communist Party for failing to warn the world of the coming crisis.
But with China’s COVID-19 caseload on a sharp downward slope, Chinese leaders also see an opportunity in the global pandemic to expand its influence and tarnish the U.S. as a rival.
“China is absolutely trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Australia,” Mr. Stewart said.
“China is clever in the sense that its state media is essentially accusing Australia of being a lapdog of the United States,” he said, noting that Chinese strategists may have assessed such characterizations could appeal to a certain U.S.-skeptical sector of the Australian political establishment.
Watching from afar
The increased China-Australia tension coincides the Trump administration growing effort to portray Beijing in a negative light on the global stage.
“We greatly underestimated the degree to which Beijing is ideologically and politically hostile to free nations,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently. “The whole world is waking up to that fact.”
“China’s been ruled by a brutal, authoritarian regime, a communist regime since 1949,” he told reporters on May 20. “For several decades, we thought the regime would become more like us through trade, scientific exchanges, diplomatic outreach. … [But] that didn’t happen.”
Mr. Pompeo characterized he Beijing-Canberra spat as the latest example of unseemly Chinese aggression. “The Chinese Communist Party chose to threaten Australia with economic retribution for the simple act of asking for an independent inquiry into the origins of the virus,” he said. “It’s not right.”
But not event the Trump administration itself is ready to embrace a so-called “decoupling” with China, even as relations plunge amid issues such as the virus and the status of Hong Kong. Mr. Trump and his economic advisers have tried to keep the “Phase One” trade deal with Beijing alive despite unprecedented levels of rhetorical hostility.
Analysts in Britain say the restrained response so far from the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Beijing’s recent moves against Hong Kong reflect a realistic appraisal in London that the post-Brexit U.K. simply can’s afford to write off China as a supplier and customer.
Some analysts say Australia has, after a period of relative ambivalence, has been emerging an increasing beacon of political independence against Chinese pressure in the region.
In 2018, the Australian parliament’s passed new laws banning covert foreign interference in domestic politics. The laws came in the wake of media reports that China was engaged in a covert push to meddle in Australian politics and compromise the country’s political parties — claims Beijing sharply disputed.
“I read Australia’s newfound criticism of China as a reluctant but necessary step in defense of Australian liberal democratic institutions,” said Daniel S. Markey, a former State Department official whose new book, “China’s Western Horizon,” examines Beijing’s desires for rising global influence.
“The crucial point is to appreciate that only over the past few years was Canberra so vocal in its concerns about China, knowing that it would be economically costly,” said Mr. Markey, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
“This shift,” he said, “came as the consequence of Chinese meddling in Australian politics, and increasingly heavy-handed efforts by President Xi’s CCP to control the narrative at home, among Chinese abroad [including in Australia], and even among non-Chinese who are commercially tied to China in Australia and elsewhere.”
Others say China’s latest heavy-handedness may backfire.
“In previous Chinese attempts at coercion, the effect was an overall of stiffening the Australian backbone against China,” said Ms. Searight, who maintained that Canberra has thus far “been steadfast in prioritizing its strategic interests and values above Chinese economic bullying.”
She described it as “interesting” that China has chosen to step up its coercion tactics despite evidence that the past efforts have resulted in Australian public opinion swings against Beijing.
Mr. Stewart agreed, asserting “China’s attempted use of sharp power in this type of situation often can backfire.”
He pointed to Japan is an example, noting that after a period of expanded economic cohesion between Tokyo and Beijing, the Chinese overplayed their hand by trying to pressure the Japanese into relinquishing sovereignty over an island chain in the East China Sea.
Tokyo’s outrage over China’s aggressive behavior in the 2010 to 2012 Senkaku Islands dispute remains on display to this day, according to Mr. Stewart, who suggested it has even reared its head anew in Japan’s response to the coronavirus.
Japanese lawmakers, he noted, set aside more than $2 billion in a recent coronavirus stimulus package as money reserved only for Japanese companies willing to move their factories out of China — a development that fits with Tokyo’s wider efforts in recent years to diversify it’s supply chains beyond China through a so-called “shifting away” strategy.
Whether Australia may be on course toward a similar strategy remains to be seen.
Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said last week that the nation’s businesses could seek “other markets” if Beijing continues to engage in “unpredictable regulatory interventions” like the recent 80% hike on barley imports.
Mr. Stewart suggests Beijing has overplayed its hand in a more basic sense. “The Chinese government seems to be misinterpreting how democracies work,” he said. “Throughout history, democracies have not liked being bullied. They like to be free to take ethical stances.”
“The information environment in democracies is very big and chaotic and fluid, while the information environment in China is constrained and controlled,” Mr. Stewart added. “So my hunch is that democracies can and will want to repel efforts to oppress or constrain or control them especially from what some are calling a totalitarian [Chinese] state.”
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