With the war of words between China and the US on hiatus, especially as Beijing awaits for a pro-China Joe Biden to occupy the White House and normalize relations, Beijing has found a new diplomatic target to unleash hell on: Australia.
In what the Sydney Morning Herald dubbed "an extraordinary attack on the Australian government", Beijing accused Australia of "poisoning bilateral relations" in a deliberately leaked document that threatens to escalate tensions between the two countries whose bilateral trade relations have already suffered a spectacular collapse in recent months.
The Chinese government document goes further than any public statements made by the Chinese Communist Party, accusing the Morrison government of attempting "to torpedo" Victoria’s Belt and Road deal, and blaming Canberra for "unfriendly or antagonistic" reports on China by independent Australian media.
"China is angry. If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy," a Chinese government official said in a briefing with a reporter in Canberra on Tuesday.
With China suddenly emboldened, perhaps expecting a Biden presidency to rollover to all of Beijing's demands, the dossier of 14 grievances was handed over by the Chinese embassy in Canberra to Nine News, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in a diplomatic play that appears aimed at pressuring the Morrison government to reverse Australia’s position on key policies.
The list of Beijing grievances includes:
- government funding for "anti-China" research at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute,
- raids on Chinese journalists and academic visa cancellations,
- "spearheading a crusade" in multilateral forums on China’s affairs in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang,
- calling for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19 (because clearly China has nothing to hide here)
- banning Huawei from the 5G network in 2018, and
- blocking 10 Chinese foreign investment deals across infrastructure, agriculture and animal husbandry sectors.
In a "targeted threat" to Australia’s foreign policy position, the Chinese official also said if Australia backed away from policies on the list, it "would be conducive to a better atmosphere".
The dossier was delivered shortly before China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian laid the blame on Australia for the state of the relationship at a press conference in Beijing.
"The Australian side should reflect on this seriously, rather than shirking the blame and deflecting responsibility," he said.
In response to China's scathing attack on Australian sovereignty, the Morrison government rejected Beijing’s characterisation and called for the Chinese government to answer its phone calls. "The ball is very much in China's court to be willing to sit down and have that proper dialogue," Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said on Wednesday.
But the Chinese government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorised to speak publicly, said "why should China care about Australia?" and that phone calls would be "meaningless” while the "atmosphere is bad".
The document also takes aim at "thinly veiled allegations against China on cyber attacks without any evidence" and claims Australia was the first country without a maritime presence in the South China Sea to condemn China’s actions at the United Nations. Australia followed the United States in July in branding China’s claims to the disputed area "unlawful".
It also accuses MPs of "outrageous condemnations of the governing party of China and racist attacks against Chinese or Asian people" after Liberal Senator Eric Abetz demanded Chinese-Australian witnesses at a Parliamentary inquiry condemn the Chinese Communist Party.
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Meanwhile, in response to the latest Chinese diplomatic provocation, Prime Minister Morrison said he wouldn’t compromise Australia’s national security and sovereignty according to Bloomberg.
"Australia will always be ourselves,” Morrison said in a television interview Thursday with the Nine Network. "We will always set our own laws and our own rules according to our national interests -- not at the behest of any other nation, whether that’s the U.S. or China or anyone else."
While Morrison's response was commendable, it may also be futile: China has is placing increased pressure on Australia through trade sanctions and reprisals as it criticizes a raft of Australian policies. While ministerial ties with the U.S. ally have been in a deep freeze since April, when Morrison’s government called for independent investigators to enter Wuhan to probe the origins of the coronavirus, the prime minister’s visit to strategic partner Japan this week to sign a new defense pact has exacerbated tensions further.
Morrison, who said Thursday he had seen the “unofficial document that’s come out of the Chinese embassy,” added in the TV interview that Australia’s values, democracy and sovereignty "are not up for trade"; his government has labeled Chinese trade reprisals launched this year as “economic coercion.”
“We won’t be compromising on the fact that we’ll set what our foreign investment laws are, or how we build our 5G telecommunications networks, or how we run our systems to protect that are protecting against any interference,” Morrison said.
In what may be the most notable regional geopolitical development in recent years, Morrison visited his counterpart Yoshihide Suga in Tokyo in an attempt to build a coalition of “like-minded” democracies pushing back against what Beijing’s increasing influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
In addition to agreeing to a legal framework that will allow the military of each nation to stay in the other’s country to conduct joint exercises, Morrison and Suga issued a joint statement with criticisms of Chinese policies, including their "strong opposition to any coercive or unilateral attempts to change the status quo and thereby increase tensions in the region."
This could also mean that China is about to have another major spat with Japan, similar to the mutual boycotts in 2013 over territorial disputes in the East China Sea. Hinting at this, China Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a daily briefing in Beijing on Wednesday that the “Chinese side is strongly dissatisfied and firmly opposed to their press statement in which they accused China on the South China Sea and East China Sea issue.” The two nations “blatantly interfered in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs," he said.
Ties between China and Australia, which until this year were very close trade partners, have been strained since 2018 when Canberra barred Huawei Technologies from building its 5G network and introducing anti-foreign interference laws aimed at halting Beijing’s “meddling” in domestic affairs.
“We stand up with other countries, whether it be on human rights issues or things that are happening around the world, including in China,” Morrison boomed. "Now if that is the source of tensions between Australia and China, well I can assure you that Australia will continue to be ourselves, we’ll continue to act in our own national interests, and pursue partnerships like the one” with Japan, which would “only strengthen stability and peace in the Indo-Pacific."
China has imposed trade strikes on up to a dozen Australian products including wine, beef, barley, timber, lobster and coal now threaten $20 billion worth of Australian exports.
One reason why China feels it has all the leverage, is that it accounts for up to 40% of Australia’s exports and one in 13 Australian jobs, leading to rising anxiety among business figures and diplomats grappling with competing objectives: balancing Australia’s national security, maintaining a military deterrent to China’s regional aggression through a new defence agreement with Japan, and keeping economic lines with China open.
"This is a significant evolution of this relationship, but there is no reason for that to cause any concern elsewhere in the region," Mr Morrison said. "I think it adds to the stability of the region, which is a good thing."
Curiously, the monetary globalists quickly urged Australia not to antagonize Beijing too much: Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe on Wednesday urged Australia to maintain a strong relationship with China. In his most direct comments on the multi-billion dollar diplomatic dispute to date, Dr Lowe said it was in the economy’s interest for the relationship between Australia and its largest trading partner to get back on track.
Alas that may not be easy: according to the SMH, the 14 items identified by the Chinese embassy document are seen by the Department of Foreign Affairs as key to Australia’s national interest and non-negotiable, leaving the two countries facing the prospect of an extended diplomatic and economic dispute.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the Australian government makes "sound decisions in our national interest and in accordance with our values and open democratic processes. We are a liberal democratic society with a free media and a parliamentary democracy, where elected members and media are entitled to freely express their views," the department said in a statement.
"The Australian government is always ready to talk directly in a constructive fashion about Australia’s relationship with China, including about our differences, and to do so directly between our political leaders. Such direct dialogue enables misrepresentation of Australia’s positions to be addressed in a constructive manner that enables our mutually beneficial relationship."