The last few weeks have seen a dramatic escalation of rhetoric, outrage and tension between Australia and China. Tensions have reached a new high after the Chinese Foreign Ministry tweeted a doctored, false picture of an Australian serviceman holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child, invoking the recent Brereton Report’s investigation into alleged war-crimes carried out by Australian soldiers.
The tweet drew immediate outrage and rebuke from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who labelled it “repugnant” and “falsified.” Morrison demanded an immediate apology and that the tweet be removed. It was not, and no apology was furnished. China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao, added that China “strongly condemned” the soldiers’ actions (which are only alleged at this stage) and that they were “shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers.” That the Chinese government appears to concern itself with (alleged) human rights abuses, runs afoul of their own abhorrent history of human rights abuses. Five stars for comedic excellence; and six stars for mephitic hypocrisy. This, in and of itself, will be viewed by the international community for what it is: a not-quite politically expedient stunt that is laughable.
But the tweet from China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao, is a symptom of greater discord within the Australia-China relationship. The pointed act comes at a time when China has levelled a series of aggressive trade protections on imported Australian goods. Tariffs of around 212 per cent have been slapped on imported Australian wines, an alleged anti-dumping measure, in addition to roughly 80 per cent tariffs on barley and other Australian goods. This indeed hurts Australia.
China contends that the actions are founded on a legitimate basis, but Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute asserts that China is using trade as a weapon with coercive intent. China is furious at the Australian government for its advocation of a COVID-19 investigation, soon to be passed foreign interference legislation, the Australian stance on the South China Sea and Hong Kong, as well as for excluding Huawei and Chinese entities from the 5G network in Australia.
But in this instance, could China be cutting off its nose, to spite its face? China’s actions are being keenly observed by the international community. They are increasingly changing the way trade with China is perceived and expediting nations around the world to re-evaluate their economic dependency on Beijing. This ultimately is not good news for China; in fact it’s highly damaging. And further, if the utilization of trade as a weapon against Australia continues, other nations in the region are likely to be highly suspicious of Chinese intentions when dealing with Beijing. If China would do this to Australia, why wouldn’t they do it to anyone else?
Beijing’s indignation is a convenient pretext for the actions that it has taken as of late, but the endgame is ultimately political. China has elected to punish and sought to coerce Australia over significant political conflicts by using trade and protection measures as leverage. Beijing seeks a more compliant Australia, which is less critical, and more welcoming of China’s agenda. It is also signalling to other nations in the region that China, can and will do, whatever it pleases. And if nations resist, as Australia is resisting at present, Beijing holds no qualms in fuelling escalation. This begs the question, is this ultimately a pyrrhic victory for an increasingly belligerent China?