Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (R) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) attend a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on March 24, 2017.Photo: AFP/David Gray
Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (R) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) attend a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on March 24, 2017. Photo: AFP/David Gray

In the Chinese version of “blind man’s bluff”, the person groping around in the dark while the other players scatter in all directions is known as the “chicken”, presumably because he lacks the guile to catch his tormentors.

Or it may be an oblique reference to another children’s game where two individuals race at breakneck speed toward each other and gamble that the other will swerve at the last second. Let’s not forget that the original title for the game of bluff was “blind man’s buff” — a buff is a little push.

As Australia moves to repair the damage from its latest diplomatic tiff with Beijing, it might be asking whether it has become the chicken in a game of brinkmanship that could become a model for China’s efforts to reshape the global order, one country and one push at a time.

Relations sank a notch further after the chairman of Australia’s Parliamentary Joint Committee for Intelligence and Security, Andrew Hastie, named the Chinese billionaire Chau Chak Wing as a central figure in the alleged bribing of former UN General Assembly president John Ashe in 2016.

Chau, an Australian citizen who was born in China, is said to have paid out US$225,000 to Ashe and his entourage so they would attend a 2017 real estate conference in China. Ashe has since died, but the allegations are still being investigated by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Australia's flag flutters in front of the Great Hall of the People during a welcoming ceremony for Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (not in picture) in Beijing, China, April 14, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee
Australia’s flag in front of the Great Hall of the People, Beijing, China, April 14, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee

The allegations aren’t new: Chau has filed several lawsuits against Australian media groups over previous reports. But the story hit a raw nerve with China, not least because he is apparently close to the Communist Party elite. The FBI wasn’t too happy either at being dragged into the spat, according to reports.

Taken at face value, it is a fairly tame affair. But some individuals in Beijing saw an opportunity to rub at other sore points in the relationship, including Canberra’s efforts to tighten up foreign influence on politics, which it has admitted are mostly aimed at China, as well as Australian criticism over Beijing’s militarization of contested islands in the South China Sea.

On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Australia “must break away from its traditional thinking, take off its tinted glasses to look at China’s development from a more positive angle.”

The ultra-nationalist Global Times then issued a typically shrill editorial on Wednesday that argued it was time for Beijing to “make Australia pay for its arrogant attitude toward China over the past two years”, by curbing imports.

Noting that Australia had exported goods worth US$76.5 billion to China in 2017, the article suggested that the value could be reduced by US$6.5 billion if the Chinese did their shopping elsewhere, which “would send cold chills up and down the spine of Australia. Of course, it would be an even greater shock if the import reductions totaled US$10 billion,” it said.

Where's there's dirt there's brass, as the saying goes. Australia was the biggest beneficiary of China's soaring iron ore demand. Photo: Reuters
Australia has been a big beneficiary of China’s soaring iron ore demand. Photo: Reuters

Bluff or buff? The Global Times doesn’t speak for China’s leaders, and it is likely that the Chinese economy would suffer the more from disruptions in trade.

While Australia’s imports are mostly consumer goods, China relies heavily on shipments of Australian iron ore and other minerals; reworking supply chains to other sources takes time and is usually costly.

“I don’t think there’s any intention to attempt to replace them because this would be an extremely difficult and complex process,” Kevin Carrico, a lecturer at Macquarie University, told The New Daily. “China probably needs Australia considerably more than Australia needs China.”

Why the constant sniping over comments that would likely have attracted little attention if they had come from any other country? Some analysts believe that Beijing is stepping up its oft-stated objective of recasting the global order in its own image and views Australia as a fairly soft target.

Canberra has struggled to put together a cohesive response to China’s checkbook diplomacy in the Pacific, traditionally an Australian sphere of influence, which is happening at a time when its closest ally, the United States, is focusing on internal affairs and has been weakened globally.

US President Donald Trump jokes with Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump jokes with Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Australia is feeling lonely and China is often quick to spot a weak point, analysts say.

“China is clearly taking advantage of the situation where we have an American president who can’t be trusted, who is very inconsistent with what he says and does,” said Pradeep Taneja, a specialist in Chinese politics at the University of Melbourne.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull insisted on Wednesday that his country has a “good, frank … very strong relationship with China,” and is confident bilateral ties can withstand the occasional disagreement.

So Australia is calling China’s bluff on threats to downgrade economic and diplomatic ties, probably because any appeasement now would be seen as a sign of weakness. The game has only just started, but it is clear which country is wearing the blindfold — and which is busy making up the rules.

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