How Did We Get Here? The Decline Of The Australia-China Relationship

Last month, in the escalating feud between Australia and China, Australian coal imports were banned by China. While the move has achieved its intended effect of attacking Australia’s economy, it will negatively affect their national power supply. As winter begins in China, having people freeze in their own homes as a result of power outages caused by diplomatic disagreement is unconscionable. The outcomes of this geopolitical spat demonstrate how critical regional trade relations are for every nation, as well as the need for clear and effective communication between countries.

The Sino-Australian relationship has undergone significant strain in recent years as geopolitical competition in the region has intensified with the United States. Diplomatic relations significantly broke down in 2020, and the decline in the relationship is thought to have started in May when Australia called for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. Importantly, this announcement came without international consensus behind it, and as such, was interpreted by the Chinese government as an attack against it. In a display of tit for tat three months later, Australia was accused of dumping wine into China’s economy — a claim which allows the government to temporarily freeze the importation of Australian wines, according to ABC News.

In October, Australia joined the Malabar Exercise for the first time – a joint naval exercise sees Canberra partnering with Washington, New Delhi, and Tokyo, training in the South China Sea which would take place in November. This event, which sees the first joint military venture between the ‘Quad’ states, was received as extremely provocative by China. The South China Sea is considered sovereign territory by Beijing, and a grouping of its strategic rivals operating in its waters creates much apprehension. Consequently, China hit Australia with another round of retributive tariffs, intensifying the economic pressure on agricultural industries such as wine, beef, barley, and lobsters.

Chinese embassy staff in Canberra cooperated with local journalists in November to publish a list of 14 areas where Australia could improve its relationship with China, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Many of the listed grievances highlight China’s dissatisfaction of the coverage and discussions of Chinese human rights violations in Australian media and think tanks, and annunciates that Australia is unfairly and baselessly targeting it in international forums and blocking Chinese private enterprises like Huawei in Australia. Later, Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave a digital address at London-based thinktank Policy Exchange where he reaffirmed Australian sovereignty in order to counteract Chinese narratives of Canberra being a mouthpiece for American foreign policy objectives.

On November 10, the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force released a report detailing the inappropriate conduct of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2016. The inquiry revealed evidence of 39 unlawful murders committed by special forces personnel. Reacting to the news of Australian misdeed, Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian posted an inflammatory photoshopped image using an official Chinese government twitter account that depicted an Australian soldier cutting the throat of a child. The picture was described as “truly repugnant” by Prime Minister Morrison, who also demanded an apology for the post.

The geopolitical saga that has taken place over the last several months has seen Australia suffer economic repercussions from a punitive Chinese regime; but to what end? If China sought to make Australia out to be an enemy to the rest of the world, it has likely failed. As the U.S. is expected to return to traditional diplomacy with the incoming presidential administration and a distinctly bipartisan anti-China tilt in Congress, talks of “strategic shiraz reserves” and other economic support signals a broad international will to reject Chinese aggression. The Sino-Australian relationship is currently at an impasse, with both parties beginning to look elsewhere for business. This diplomatic moment may be indicative of things to come as states begin forming concrete perspectives on the emerging major powers of the near future.

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