The escalating row between China and Australia holds important lessons for India and, indeed, for the broader international community. Each incident and utterance, by the Chinese Communist Party spokespersons or by a designated proxy, peels away a fresh layer of the carefully cultivated veneer of the allegedly peaceful rise of China. The mask is off and the naked aggression, in words and actions, is on full display.
Chinese assault on Australia
Ostensibly, it was the Australian demand for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus in April 2020 and China’s apoplectic reaction to the demand that set the once-booming ties on their current trajectory. But on 18 November, the ‘wolf warriors’ at the Chinese embassy in Canberra helpfully leaked a document that lists 14 grievances that Australia must address to bring relations back to even keel. Outrage over the virus inquiry is only one of these. Others range from unhappiness over positions taken by Australia on South China Sea and Hong Kong, to the negative portrayal of China by Australian media and think tanks, and restrictions imposed by Australia to keep Huawei and ZTE out of its 5G telecom network. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded saying he had seen the unofficial document and that Australia’s values, democracy and sovereignty “are not up for trade”.
Meanwhile, Beijing continues to ramp up its pressure on the Australian economy. In its latest move on 27 November, China slapped an unprecedented anti-dumping duty of up to 212 per cent on Australian wines. Since the Chinese market accounted for 40 per cent of Australia’s wine exports, the impact on the struggling viticulture industry will be devastating. And it comes on the heels of other restrictions on key Australian exports like beef, barley, seafood, coal, and timber.
With 38 per cent of its exports destined for China, Canberra knows that it is vulnerable. But the blatant manner in which China has weaponised its trade policy is generating shock waves that will be felt beyond Australian shores. They provide new impetus to other countries that seek to diversify their markets and build more resilient supply chains.
Chinese artist sullying Australia’s image
On the political side, a fresh spat erupted around an Australian Defense Forces’ inquiry report that held its own special forces responsible for the killing of 39 unarmed Afghan civilians and recommending action against 19 serving and retired armed forces personnel. Chinese foreign office spokesperson Zhao Lijian waded into the debate by tweeting on 30 November a fake photo showing an Australian soldier killing an Afghan child with a blood-stained knife. It was quickly pointed out that the image was doctored and was the work of a Chinese artist. The Australians asked Twitter to take down the image and sought an apology from Beijing. Zhao Lijian’s response was emblematic. “The accusations made are simply to serve two purposes. One is to deflect public attention from the horrible atrocities by certain Australian soldiers. The other is to blame China for the worsening of bilateral ties.”
Morrison denounced China’s behaviour as outrageous and said, “The Chinese government should be utterly ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes.” He also posted a message on Chinese social media platform WeChat that defended his government’s handling of the investigation, and promised that Australia would deal with thorny issues in a transparent manner. Morrison’s post was blocked by Chinese censors – quite an irony considering that Zhao himself uses Twitter that is otherwise blocked in China.
Chinese challenge for Biden
For China, the issue goes well beyond trade. It is about punishing a country that has decided to stand up to the pre-eminent regional power, about demonstrating that such recalcitrance has consequences and about lessons that others should absorb from this episode. The fact that they can do this to a key US ally and a member of the cohesive Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group comprising the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand also carries a strong message for the incoming Joe Biden administration.
US President-elect Joe Biden will have to contend with a China under Xi Jinping that appears obsessed with its own delusions of grandeur, a sense of entitlement about the strategic space that it intends to grab. Only a few short years back, the country was spending billions of dollars on its ambitious soft power campaign to win friends and influence people through a global network of Confucius Institutes, the Belt and Road Initiative, soft loans, scholarships, media outreach and much else. But the tenor of comments from Zhao and others suggests that the policy focus has shifted to hard power — China intends to do what it wants, and if you don’t like it, that’s too bad. Having invested in Confucius Institutes at university campuses across Australia, China finds that its trustworthiness among ordinary Aussies has plummeted from 52 per cent to just 23 per cent in two years flat. That’s a clear failure of soft power, even as the jury is out on the efficacy of the bare-knuckles approach.
The treatment meted out to Australia stands in some contrast to Beijing’s public pronouncements on India over the last few months. Despite the ongoing standoff on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), spokespersons like Zhao Lijian and proxies like Global Times editor Hu Xijin have been fairly restrained. But India has been at their receiving end before, and it won’t take much for the fangs to come out again. Australia’s long overdue participation in this year’s Malabar exercises and the energy being pumped into the Quad are welcome steps, but there is much to be done before it starts making its presence felt.
Meanwhile, there are other ways to respond to Chinese aggression. As the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China’s innovative #SolidarityWithAustralia campaign suggests, this might be a good time to go out and buy some fine Australian wine for the holiday season.
Navdeep Suri @navdeepsuri is currently a Distinguished Fellow at ORF and has served as India’s High Commissioner to Australia. Views are personal.