China sends a message with Australian crackdown

The author is a senior fellow with the Lowy Institute

For a glimpse of the future in a world dominated by China, a good starting point is Australia.

Beijing’s embassy in Canberra last week handed the local media a short document detailing 14 grievances that China says are the cause of its rapidly deteriorating relations with Australia.

The document contains many familiar complaints: Beijing says Canberra has been interfering in its sovereignty through critical statements on Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea and Xinjiang, and has unfairly excluded Chinese companies like Huawei from Australia’s 5G telecommunications network.

The truly illuminating detail, however, lay in the other multiple grievances, about hostile local media coverage, foreign investment restrictions, critical think-tank reports and MPs outspoken on human rights.

As Rush Doshi of the Brookings Institution in Washington notes, the list is revealing in its hypocrisy. After all, Beijing routinely directs attacks at its critics through its state-controlled media, regulates local think-tank output, screens foreign investment proposals and regulates the speech of Chinese officials.

China’s most prominent Oceania scholar followed the document’s release by calling Australian foreign policy “bizarre”, “immature”, “stubborn”, “belligerent”, “mindless” and “juvenile” among a litany of other pejoratives, And that was in just one article. 

The list of grievances also complains that Australia is forcing the state government of Victoria to ditch its participation the Belt and Road Initiative, because it conflicts with Canberra’s refusal to sign on to Beijing’s flagship infrastructure programme.

Needless to say, if a Chinese provincial party secretary signed an agreement with Australia which Beijing had not sanctioned, he or she would be sacked forthwith.

It is little wonder that Australia has become the canary-in-the-coal-mine of an emerging illiberal Chinese world order. Australia is a close US ally, and a core member of the Anglosphere’s “Five Eyes” intelligence partnership.

The Australia-China relationship has been deteriorating for some years, but the downward spiral has accelerated in recent months. Two tipping points stand out this year — the Australian call for an independent inquiry into the Covid-19 outbreak, and police raids on Chinese-Australians and Chinese media in Australia over allegations of covert interference in domestic politics.

China’s response has been ferocious, slapping trade restrictions on multiple Australian exports, such as wine, beef, timber, barley and coal.

The trade barriers initially carried a pretence of legality, as they were ostensibly based on anti-dumping claims and health concerns. In recent weeks, the Ministry of Commerce in Beijing hasn’t bothered with that, issuing informal instructions to customs to block Australian goods on arrival.

Australian leaders used to say the country didn’t have to choose between its security ally (the US) and its economic partner (China). Such sinuous spin no longer passes muster.

It is true that Australia has at times been diplomatically clumsy in its handling of Beijing, notably in the way it unilaterally called for the Covid-19 inquiry and in its management of proposals to limit Chinese investment in the country.

Prominent Australians have also been critical of Canberra’s hardening line, saying that the intelligence community has taken over policy at the expense of diplomacy and commercial interests.

They also complain that Australian leaders’ efforts to keep on the right side of Donald Trump has ended up making them look like they were trailing dutifully behind him. Some in the business community are demanding that Canberra finds ways to work with China to rescue the relationship. However, other democracies should take note of Beijing’s behaviour, as they could be the next target.

The message is clear. If your media is overly critical, if your think-tanks produce negative reports, if your MPs persist in criticism, if you probe Communist party influence in your community and politics and if you don’t allow Chinese state and private companies into your market, and so on, you will be vulnerable to Beijing’s retribution as well.

As documents go, Beijing’s “14 Grievances” doesn’t quite match the “Long Telegram”, the dispatch from George Kennan in 1946 that laid the foundation for US policy of containment towards the Soviet Union in the cold war.

But it provides an illuminating road map for a future in which a powerful China demands that its political system be respected and its human rights record stay beyond foreign scrutiny.

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