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Aussie Vs the Asian Bear

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Timeline of a broken relationship: how China and Australia went from chilly to barely speaking

By Tony Walker, Vice-chancellor’s fellow, La Trobe University

When the history of this latest low point in China-Australia relations is written, both sides will be blamed for mistakes.

Australia is not without fault. However, China is primarily responsible for the continuing deterioration in the relationship.

Its ruthlessness in asserting itself far and wide, by fair means and foul, means there will be no going back to the status quo that prevailed before President Xi Jinping emerged in 2013 as China’s most nationalistic leader since Mao Zedong.

Likewise, Beijing’s crude use of trade sanctions to penalise Australia for real or imagined slights signifies that a trading relationship born of mutual benefit risks being subject to persistent, politically-motivated interference.

This is the reality, whether we like it or not. China is done with “biding its time” in line with former leader Deng Xiaoping’s advice in pursuit of its big power ambitions. It may no longer be correct to describe China as a “rising power”. The power has risen.

What is clear is that Canberra has vastly underestimated the velocity of change in the Asia-Pacific region, and, more to the point, the costs associated with an attachment to old models for doing business.

This is not an argument for sliding away from the American alliance, the cornerstone of Australian security. Rather, a more realistic assessment is required of what is and is not in the national interest.

What is not in the national interest are policies that needlessly antagonise the nation’s dominant customer. Again, this is not making the case for excusing China’s bad behaviour, or somehow suggesting the customer is always right. It is simply saying that gratuitous provocations should be avoided.

The timeline below tracks the recent tensions between China and Australia. Multiple episodes stand out that have marked — and in some cases scarred — Canberra’s relations with Beijing since Xi came to power.

These moments have all contributed to the deterioration of the relationship to the point where Australia now risks long-term harm to its economic interests. This is policy failure on-the-run.

Timeline of a fraying relationship

Three particularly damaging episodes

Three episodes have been particularly damaging.

The first and almost certainly the most scarring was the decision in early 2019 for Australia to take the lead role in lobbying its Five Eyes partners to exclude the Chinese company Huawei from supplying technology for their 5G networks.

Australia’s decision to exclude Huawei from its own 5G roll-out is one thing, lobbying others to follow suit is another. What possessed decision-makers in Canberra to take it upon themselves to put Australia at the forefront of a global campaign against China’s economic interests remains a mystery.

To say this decision enraged Beijing would be an understatement, with the caveat that Australia had every right to exclude Huawei if it was deemed in the national security interest to do so.

The second damaging episode involved Prime Minister Scott Morrison volunteering to lead the charge for an investigation into China’s responsibility for the coronavirus that emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Again, why Morrison took it upon himself to coordinate such an inquiry — when one was in train anyway under World Health Organisation auspices — is unclear. Beijing’s furious response might have been anticipated, with the editor of the state-run Global Times referring to Australia as the “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe”.

The third damaging episode involved Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s decision to prevent the Hong Kong-listed China Mengniu Dairy from taking over the Japanese-owned Lion Dairy and Drinks in a $600 million acquisition.

In rejecting Mengniu’s takeover bid, Frydenberg overrode advice from the Foreign Investment Review Board and Treasury — both of which had supported the deal.

This was a politically motivated decision to satisfy critics of the sale of Australian assets to Chinese entities. It certainly reinforced a view in Beijing that Australia’s foreign investment approval process is tilted against Chinese companies.

 

Does the government actually have a plan for China?

Likewise, the government’s foreign relations bill — passed by parliament this week — can be read as an attempt to reinforce Canberra’s control over a panoply of relationships between Australian states, territories and educational institutions and their Chinese counterparts.

The government might pretend this is an omnibus bill aimed at asserting federal government oversight of the foreign policy-making responsibilities of the Commonwealth. But in reality it is aimed squarely at contacts with Chinese entities.

Victoria’s Belt and Road agreement with Beijing is in the bill’s sights, along with the Northern Territory’s deal with the Chinese Landbridge Group for lease of part of the Darwin port.

There is a central question in all of this: does the Morrison government actually have an overarching game plan for dealing with China, or is it simply stumbling from one crisis to the next.

Those responsible for Australia’s foreign policy clearly have not been able to navigate treacherous diplomatic terrain and avoid the pitfalls that have brought Sino-Australian relations to an all-time low.

Morrison’s foreign policy team has also proved ineffectual at facing down pressures from those in the government’s own ranks who have a particular animus towards Beijing. Such antagonism has proved to be a dead weight on constructive China policy-making.

This brings us to Morrison’s own reaction to the offensive tweet depicting a doctored image of an Australian soldier with a knife at the throat of an Afghan child. Soon after it was shared by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Morrison went on television to denounce both the official and the crude caricature.

No one could reasonably object to the prime minister’s outrage. However, he should not have lowered himself to engage a Chinese spin-doctor in an argument about a graphic piece of Chinese propaganda.

This should have been left to Foreign Minister Marise Payne, or, better still, the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Morrison further compounded the issue by vaingloriously demanding an apology.

Morrison’s clumsy handing of the issue speaks to a lack of China literacy among his advisers.

An Australian media echo chamber

The Australian media has also played a role in amplifying anti-Beijing viewpoints to such an extent, it has had a deadening effect on reasonable discussion about managing the country’s China policy more effectively.

The business community, for example, has been discouraged — even intimidated — from voicing its opinion out of concern it would be accused of pandering to Beijing for its own selfish reasons.

All this adds to pressures on policymakers to pursue a one-dimensional “stand up to Chinese bullying” approach, not give ground and ascribe the worst possible motives to whatever China says or does.

 

This is hardly a substitute for a carefully thought-through, well-articulated, tough-minded approach to managing a highly complex relationship in the national interest.

As things stand, those in charge of framing Australia’s policies with China are failing to do this — and Australia’s best interests are clearly not being served as a result.

Around 2,500 years ago, Chinese general and strategist Sun Tzu wrote his masterpiece, the Art of War.  This treatise is mandatory reading for Chinese officials.  Australian officials and commentators should also read it because, as the opening paragraphs state, “[T]he art of war is of vital importance to the State.  It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.  Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”

 

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13 COMMENTS

  1. I’m old enough to remember when we Nz’rs were a feisty group of people ready to stand up to anyone or anything,these days we are a soy sucking bunch of woke nancy boys being led by a majority of strong feminist women mostly who are gay ,yeee haaa..

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  2. What a shower of 120 gutless pricks we have in the stinking putrid big house in Wellington,not one of them standing up with our Aussie neighbors,nah they are all to busy duck shoving any blame for the outrage in Christchurch onto NOBODY FFS.
    Look at Collins she said “there’s only one person to blame ,the terrorist ” what a stupid statement and that Swamp creature knows it, disgusting old bent dinosaur she is, National are done.

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  3. Very good Ed, as I was set to post these articles.

    These newspapers articles more of the effect of the depth of this problem.
    Just what is a perfect answer to working with China? Is there one?

    The academia are hurting, lose of students.
    Know who is talking, the La Trobe, like many universities has a Confucius Institute on its campuses.
    Any one can critique the handling of the situation, but “know your self, know your principles. as well as know the enemy and its principles”

    Australia passes new laws that will INFURIATE China and make it easier to get out of bad trade deals – as expert makes chilling warning about ‘weak link’ threatening our national security
    ~Legislation to be passed scrapping state, territory deals made with other nations
    ~Prof Rory Medcalf called states and territories a ‘weak link’ in national security
    ~He says they are unprepared to deal with issues around espionage, propaganda

    9th December
    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9031979/Australia-passes-new-laws-INFURIATE-China.html

    China’s trade hit list: Even more Australian industries are put on ‘high alert’ as businesses ‘feel very real fear’ over crippling Beijing sanctions that could be imposed at ANY time
    ~Australian businesses fear their industry could be next targeted by China tariffs
    ~The trade dispute has escalated to include over $20billion of Australian exports
    ~This week parliament will pass new laws set to outrage the Communist Party
    ~The move could see the authoritarian state ramp up its export bans even further
    ~Industries that are most at risk include honey, dairy, vitamins, fruit and mining

    8th December
    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9029409/Australian-industries-high-alert-Beijing-warns-feel-real-fear-sanctions.html

    Now China puts Australian coal in the firing line as it warns of ‘economic pain’ for workers and households if Canberra ‘refuses to mend ties’
    Coal is Australia’s second-biggest export after iron-ore, bringing in $70billion
    China is the second-biggest customer after Japan but is reducing its take
    An article in the Global Times warned that Australian households will suffer

    8th December
    https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9028847/China-warns-Aussie-households-suffer-economic-pain-reduces-coal-imports.html

    The inroads with money, people, influence in the USA, and in so many different levels.
    Connections to Governors, into Universities, digital connections to integrity of USA elections, then there seem to be subversive connections too, like BLM.

    Looking at the last few points, just what are the Western world dealing with?
    And this university dean, seems to push a line, that the Chinese have ethics, and just a few minor problems?, that westerners should be ok with, and so work around. …… yeah right.

    So far NZ has been fortunate, but how far & in what way have we been subverted?
    Knowledge is power, so what is being kept hidden from us?

    Is the handling of China been a big success? Like West Coast dairies sell off?

    NZ also needs to take stock, just what & where we are conceding?
    To be able to position our selves to be in a relative independent position of strength, if that is ever really possible.

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  4. Some time ago I read the wonderful ‘Civilisation’ by Niall Ferguson. It’s a grand history of the British empire and there are huge parallels here now with the rise of China.

    In the book Ferguson outlines how the British Empire was primarily built on trade. Everybody gained and goods were flowing as trade flourished. Then came the formation of political alliances to cement and protect the trade; his might be called the establishment of empire. Finally and as a last resort there were wars when foreign princes, tribal chiefs and Maharajahs took up arms to challenge the British when the politics didn’t go their way. Despite all the post colonial guilt in hindsight, the military aspects of the empire were, albeit extremely dramatic, a very small overall part of the process – unlike for example, the Mongols who invaded in swathes and killed everyone in their path.

    I think the parallels with China today are plain to see. Like the British (and unlike the Mongols or the bloodthirsty 1930s Japanese for example) China is primarily a trading power and the benefits for NZ of trading with them are huge. Win win so far. A market for our raw materials and some of our products (e.g. dairy and ‘education’ etc) and a ready access to shitloads of good quality cheap manufactured goods in return.

    So far China hasn’t needed war. They are in the ‘political alliances’ stage and by now, for example, they virtually own NZ politically as well as economically with their people firmly established in both our main political parties and a ready flow of funding for bribery and coercion when needed. But the Maharajahs and princelings in Australia are starting to kick back and there are problems ahead there.

    China has been quietly building up its military capability and for now the deterrent is enough to keep the peace while they work towards total ownership of the Pacific. But when they decide to impose a blockade on Taiwan, that’ll be when the chips are down.

    Militarily, Australia doesn’t stand a chance and I think their bluster will, sadly, turn out to be so much hot air. But NZ is right at the crossroads. Do we support Australia or do we try to retain a degree of token sovereignty while at the same time protecting our economy from the firestorm that is coming? Big question.

    My feeling is that, given our Marxist history and looking at who she has installed as our foreign minister, the writing is on the wall for NZ’s total capitulation. We can probably expect a Chinese military base in the Kermadecs in the near future.

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    • very good Eurokiwi
      The cross roads, decisions to be made, or is it too late?
      Have the Chinese already crossed the bridge to NZ already?
      Already crossed the Rubicorn?

      Just what are the great principles in NZ? except to change them when pressure comes on?
      Imbibe enough so that NZ will not stand.
      Inside NZ it will be too easy to disrupt, suppress any questions, and so we can continue down the road to serfdom.

      I used to think that NZ would be an unsinkable air craft carrier, if controlled by another country, and so linking to other island states, would then isolate and separate Australia.
      The track of Australia through its states policies seems to close to making that unnecessary.

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    • The trouble with your analysis EK is that you are confusing the European model of Empire with the Chinese model which was the tribute system… and number one requirement in this system was not to insult the Emperor!

      Scmo is like someone sending insulting emails to their best customer when drunk.

      Btw, the other insult left off the list was Australia signing a defence agreement with Japan.. Anti Japanese feeling here in China is much stronger than aniti western.

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      • Yes towaka, thanks for bringing up the tribute system of the ancient Chinese Empire. You’re right of course, that there are differences, and probably all the Pacific ‘nations’, together with Australia and New Zealand are viewed as potential (or actual) tributary states. I was painting a broad brush picture and didn’t want to go too deeply into the details.

        But it’s still true that China’s relations with the rest of the world is more to do with trade and politics than just sending armies in to beat the living fuck out of everybody – as was the case with the Mongols and more recently the Japs. Certainly the Japs didn’t dally with the niceties of trade or politics in Manchuria or any of the other Asian countries in the path of their wonderful Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere !

        Actually, when it comes to beating the living fuck out of countries, probably the Americans have almost been as bad. That’s not to defend the CCP, but I really don’t think China is primarily a military power – more of a trading power which is now beginning to see the value of having some muscle to flex if needed. But maybe that’s just my opinion. Time will tell.

        Also worth considering is how we would feel if there were Chinese battle groups, flotillas and aircraft continually patrolling between New Caledonia and Australia or throughout the Tasman. That’s probably how the Chinese feel about America constantly sticking its nose into the South China Sea.

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  5. Plenty of “smash and grab” with Euro powers as well… just think South America and Africa. But I do agree that the British started with trading and morphed into Empire.. East India Company for prime example.

    The Chinese are still smarting from their century of humiliation but even when they are the regional hegemon in East Asia I think they will use the tribute system and not so much the Monroe doctrine of the U. S.

    To best understand the new Cold War with China is to listen to John Mearshiemer from Chicago who wrote a seminal book on great power politics. Mearshiemer makes it clear that now the U. S has enacted a containment policy with China, countries like Australia will be forced by the U. S to choose sides.

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      • Likewise EK, nice to have a rational discussion about this most interesting situation between a rising power and the world Hegemon.

        Look up the debate between Mearshiemer and an Australian strategic thinker (Hugh someone?) about this topic… the developments lately support Mearshiemer’s point of view. The Australian thought that Australia could maintain normal relations with both the U.S and China.. Mearshiemer sad this was impossible.

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  6. A thread developed about Canada secretly inviting CCP military to work in with training etc..
    Sure small numbers but seems to be an alignment of Canadian policy.

    Almost seems to mean that the CCP has got China to change allegiances,
    Sure not really, but a lot more things are going to be said, and some decisions will have to made as towaka mentions above, let alone if Trump becomes President or not.

    It may suit Biden, and the timing may go well for many Democrats.
    But “unity”? and how much of the “uni” party?

    https://ysb.co.nz/have-your-say-604/#comment-110790

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