AThe ustrals have had a rude awakening this year. Convinced for a decade that Asian century It was theirs for the taking, the downward spiral of Australia’s relationship with China has come as a shock to many.
The highlights, or more like the lows, of 2020 are countless. Australian citizens Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei have been jailed in China, with little or no information on their charges. Australian journalists left the country in dramatic scenes. Exports from meat to barley, from wine to charcoal, are just a few of Australia’s industries reeling from a barrage of Chinese restrictions.
It would be easy to dismiss the Chinese story at this point as a version of Groundhog Day. Each news cycle brings a new and not entirely unexpected blow. But this overlooks the real human consequences of this dispute.
The probability that detainees Yang and Cheng will return home seems increasingly remote. Farmers caught in the bilateral crossfire seek answers and new markets. The foreign workers have been stranded at sea for months, denied entry by Chinese authorities because their ships carry Australian coal.
By becoming insensitive to these human costs, you also run the risk of forgetting the plight of many people within China. Recent reports revealed even more chilling details about forced labor practices in Xinjiang, where one million Uighurs have been interned.
It is worth remembering that this month also brought a rare victory in the bilateral relationship: an Australian-Uighur boy was allowed to leave China and reunite with his father in Australia after three years of promotion. Another reason not to look away.
Otherwise, China’s pressure on Australia has been relentless. And many in China support bringing the pain. Wolf warrior diplomacy, a term used to refer to aggressive Chinese diplomats, appears to have inspired Chinese netizens.
Chinese nationalists seemed to enjoy the consequences when Zhao Lijian tweeted a digitally altered image showing an Australian soldier murdering an Afghan child. Chinese officials unsurprisingly fired Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s demand for an apology, though his response served to change the narrative of the brutal wine tariffs that had been announced a day earlier.
Vitriol fills the comment section of any post from the Australian embassy in Beijing on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter. It turns out that the advice to never read comments applies in any language.
As much as Chinese netizens may feel aggrieved, Australian outrage at China is also palpable. Morrison’s anger was well received by many Australians; the majority supported your apology. Six out of 10 say Australia is an innocent victim of China’s trade restrictions. the 2020 Lowy Institute survey showed confidence in China at a record low, and almost all Australians support diversifying trade outside of China.
The unwavering pressure from China has only served to toughen attitudes in Australia. Despite decades of growing influence, Beijing’s friends in Australia are on the decline.
That is not to say that Australians have stopped reflecting on how the country ended up here. But most of the complaints about the various Canberra bugs aim for tone, rather than substance. Few have argued that Australia should concede any of the complaints that Chinese officials have made public.
Although Australia’s relationship with China began to deteriorate in mid-2017, most agree that Australia’s call for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19 was a turning point for China.
We will never know whether Australia would have been spared the economic pain of the past few months if that announcement had not been made. Or if Australia had been flanked by other countries. Or he had omitted the weapons inspectors analogy.
But that ship has sailed. And there are every reason to believe that China’s plans to limit Australian exports were already in the works. Chief among them is China’s pursuit of economic self-sufficiency, described as “Double circulation”. Beijing intends to reduce China’s dependence on any single market; this should sound concerning to those who view Australia’s iron ore exports as “safe”. Sure for now, maybe.
China’s goal of Australia is aimed in part to deter others from following in its footsteps. The plight of Australian exports sends a powerful signal to other industries and other countries: Cross Beijing at your own risk.
This limits what Australia can actually do to move forward. Hardening public opinion in Australia will limit political options. Calls to boycott Chinese products could grow. Australians can demonstrate against the organization of the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022.
Canberra may face further pressure to regulate or even ban Chinese social media apps, after WeChat censored a post by Morrison. With the rude awakening has come a growing awareness in the Australian public about the Chinese Communist Party and its goals.
At best, both parties can hope to put a floor on the downward spiral. Australian exports to China are on track for a record year, although that’s a consolation for specific industries. Chinese consumers, to date, have not been largely shaken by Beijing’s pronouncements, and continue to enthusiastic about Australian products. Chinese citizens still rates Australia very well as a place to study and travel.
The Australian and Chinese governments, encouraged by public support, are unlikely to change the current trajectory of the relationship. Australians will no longer believe that limitless opportunities and benefits come without political risk and strained moral territory. There can be no return to the Australia-China relationship of the past. The question for 2021 is how to find a new settlement point.
• Natasha Kassam is a researcher at the Lowy Institute
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.