Bottles of Australian wine are displayed at a supermarket in Hangzhou, in eastern China's Zhejiang province, on November 27, 2020. Photo: AFP/STR

Beijing’s current fight with Australia is proving counterproductive, damaging China’s standing not only with Australians but also with much of the international community. 

This raises the question of why Beijing has persisted in and even intensified an apparently losing policy. 

The answer relies on discerning Beijing’s motivations and objectives, which likely have little to do with forcing Canberra into submission.   

Australian relations with China have been deteriorating dramatically since 2017, when the government of then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull publicly announced that Chinese government operatives were interfering in Australian politics. 

In response, Canberra tightened its laws restricting foreign influence over elected officials, drawing criticism from the Chinese embassy. 

Soon afterward, Canberra announced it would exclude Chinese telecom giant Huawei from the construction of Australia’s 5G information technology network. The bilateral falling-out accelerated in 2020 with Australia’s call for the World Health Organization to investigate the origin of the Coronavirus. 

Then in September, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne called out Beijing for persecuting Muslims in Xinjiang and closing down civil liberties in Hong Kong. 

Beijing has retaliated against Australia with economic punishment and shrill rhetoric. China has placed import restrictions on 13 Australian industries, including coal, beef, barley and wine.

Simultaneously, Chinese officials and media have condemned Australia for purported political offenses against China, using language such as “Canberra implements a wolf-style policy toward China and has become the most savage accomplice of US suppression of China” and “Australia’s evil acts toward China have made Chinese society not only surprised, but also disgusted.” 

China took the dispute to a new level on November 17, however, by presenting the Australian government with a list of 14 grievances and a warning that “China is angry.” 

The list of Australian actions Beijing demanded be redressed included the banning of Huawei, “siding with the United States’ anti-China campaign,” the new laws targeting foreign interference in Australian politics and the Australian government’s criticism of China over cyber attacks, human rights violations and Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea.

Beijing was still not finished. Already in attack mode, Chinese government commentators were quick to condemn Australia after the Australian government reported an inquiry had found that Australian soldiers illegally killed civilians in Afghanistan.

On November 30, Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian poured gasoline on the flaming bilateral relationship by tweeting a staged photo illustration of a smiling Australian soldier about to murder an Afghan child. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded the Chinese government apologize for the tweet, a demand promptly rejected by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. Photo: AFP / Greg Baker

China’s pressure campaign against Australia has ostensibly failed. Favorable Australian opinion toward China had already plunged by mid-2020, undoing years of Chinese efforts to cultivate influence with an important trade partner and US ally. More than 100 countries supported Australia’s demand for a WHO investigation despite China’s opposition.

The Australian government rightly understood the 14 grievances as an outrageous demand to cede part of the country’s sovereignty to China; there is zero prospect China will see any of the offending policies changed.

As David Crowe observed, Zhao’s tweet “made it impossible for any Australian of any stature to argue that this provocation was somehow Australia’s fault.”

Leaders from multiple countries quickly expressed solidarity with Australia. To cite just one example, the US National Security Council announced on November 30 that “Australian wine will be featured at a White House holiday reception this week … due to Beijing’s coercive tariffs on Aussie vintners.”

Possible explanations

There are at least three possible explanations for Beijing pressing its attacks against Australia.  

The first is that Beijing has made the “gross miscalculation” that Canberra will in some measure submit to Chinese demands because of Australia’s dependence on trade with China. If true, this would indicate a stunning degree of dysfunction in the Chinese government’s ability to implement accurate assessments of international affairs in China’s foreign policy-making.  

More likely, however, is the second possible explanation, which is that the real target of  Beijing’s campaign is not Australia, but rather the other governments that are watching – in Southeast Asia, the European Union, South Korea and Japan. 

In this case, Beijing does not expect a groveling reversal by Canberra, but it does expect other national governments to learn the lesson that if they speak out on topics China considers politically sensitive, they will suffer economic retaliation from their large trade and investment partner. 

While consistently claiming there is no linkage between the economic sanctions against Australia and Beijing’s political disputes with Australia, Chinese officials have seemed determined to leave no doubt in the minds of observers that the sanctions are indeed a result of the political dispute. 

China’s attack on Australia reflects the confidence the Chinese have that their country’s international importance and influence has reached the point where Beijing need not worry about offending other countries, but rather other countries must take care not to offend China. 

But this, too, may prove to be a miscalculation by Beijing. Rather than accept a diminution of their sovereignty as the price of feeding at the China trough, onlooking governments are just as likely to commit themselves to faster and more substantial decoupling from China. 

A third possible explanation is that the “Wolf Warrior” mentality is now ascendant in Chinese officialdom: that bold and sharp responses to perceived disrespect toward China by foreigners is now valued so highly that officials think it unnecessary to seriously consider the possible negative consequences. 

While unlikely to serve China’s national interests, this kind of behavior is a natural consequence of a political atmosphere that rewards hyper-nationalism at the expense of pragmatic expertise, which is the direction in which Xi Jinping has taken his country. 

Wolf-warriorism brings China a step closer to resembling North Korea, the government of which routinely threatens war in response to perceived insults of the country’s paramount leader. 

The second and third explanations are not mutually exclusive; both are probably at work. 

Contrition unlikely

Beijing typically demands an act of contrition from an offending government to fully restore a bilateral relationship. After months of Chinese economic sanctions imposed on South Korea over its decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense system against China’s wishes, Seoul was forced to promise it would limit some aspects of its defense cooperation with the United States.

Norway suffered Chinese sanctions after awarding the Nobel Prize to a Chinese dissident in 2010. To get these sanctions lifted, Oslo had to make an obsequious statement praising the Chinese government and supporting its agenda. 

In the case of Australia, neither an apology nor a concessionary policy change is likely. Although truncated, the bilateral economic relationship continues. 

China still buys without restriction some Australian products – such as iron ore, for which China has a critical need. The ban on Australian coal hurts China more than it hurts Australia.

A loader fills a truck with iron ore on a quay at the Port of Rizhao in Rizhao city, east China’s Shandong province. Australia is a major source of the ore. Photo: AFP

Some months hence, Beijing will likely seek a reset in its relations with Australia and drop the bans, even with none of the 14 demands met. 

Beijing might believe it is temporarily sacrificing its relationship with Australia to gain a stronger position with the rest of the world. That outcome, however, is in doubt. In this case, reconceptualizing the game does not mean China is not still losing the game.

Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu.