“China is angry. If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.” That is how a Chinese Embassy official recently summed up her country’s diplomatic stance regarding Australia. Relations between Beijing and Canberra deteriorated significantly after a diplomatic incident so bizarre that the matter could almost have been missed.
The official made the remarks to an Australian reporter in November in Canberra, after handing him a sheet of paper with a bulleted list of 14 points: “I want it to be clear that’s what worries China.”
On the same day, Chinese spokespeople accused Australia of “causing current difficulties in bilateral relations” and demanded that it “correct its mistakes” to bring bilateral ties “back on track.”
But it is clear that Australia is not the only country Beijing wants to be more “correct.” A quick look at its 14-point list shows that Israel has “strayed” on several of them.
The Chinese are demanding that Australia reverse several decisions on domestic and foreign policy issues such as 5G (fifth-generation telecom) infrastructure restrictions, stricter visa policies, and bans on foreign investment.
Multiple Chinese complaints have been lodged against Australia regarding freedom of expression, including “antagonistic” statements against China and the Communist Party by the Australian press, sitting parliamentarians and independent research institutions.
Other complaints have been aimed at the “politicization of relations,” appeals against China on the world stage, and Australian adoption of “the American anti-China line.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s short response to the allegations: “Australia will always be ourselves. Of course, we will set our own laws and our own rules according to our national interests, not at the behest of any other nation.”
China-Australia relations have deteriorated ever since April 2020 when Foreign Minister Marise Payne called for an international independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 and China’s handling of the outbreak. Her campaign was hailed as a success after 130 countries passed a motion for an independent investigation at the World Health Assembly. Reluctantly, China also supported the motion.
But the Chinese ambassador to Canberra, Cheng Jingye, expressed Beijing’s displeasure at the motion and described “hypothetical” situations in which Chinese tourists and students would stop coming to Australia, while Chinese consumers would boycott Australian beef and wine.
This is no small matter, since the Chinese market accounts for 26% of Australia’s exports; 1.43 million tourists and 229,000 students headed Down Under in 2019; and China is the largest export market for Australian products ranging from coal, iron ore and liquefied natural gas to beef and wine.
In the following months, tensions continued to rise as Australia suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong over Chinese national-security legislation and submitted a statement to the United Nations challenging Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. In October, Foreign Minister Payne joined other parliamentarians in a statement criticizing China’s policies and condemning its oppression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
Meanwhile, China has imposed selective anti-dumping and anti-subsidy measures, tariffs and import caps on Australian goods such as coal, wine, beef, seafood, timber, barley and cotton. For some commodities, Chinese retailers were ordered to stop importing from Australia altogether.
In addition, in June, the Chinese government issued separate travel warnings to discourage any remaining tourists and students wishing to travel to Australia during the pandemic.
Some power plants and steel mills have been ordered to stop importing coal and iron ore from Australia. In November it was reported that at least 60 Australian coal vessels carrying hundreds of crew members were barred from unloading at ports in southern China. In recent months, Australia has also claimed that government ministers have been unable to contact their Chinese counterparts.
To this day, Beijing officially denies that the economic diplomatic situation is relevant to its economic policies toward Australia, but the hypotheticals of the Chinese ambassador clearly are seen by the Australian side as economic bullying. Beijing claims to have acted in accordance with the law and has challenged the Australians to refer their complaints to the World Trade Organization. (Australia indeed has done so, much to Beijing’s dismay.)
The deteriorating relationship turned into a free-fall in late November when a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman tweeted a photoshopped graphic of a grimacing Australian soldier nailing a bloody knife to the throat of an Afghan boy. The tweet was accompanied by a scathing condemnation of the reported illicit killing of 39 people by Australian troops in the Afghanistan war.
Morrison demanded an official apology from Beijing and the removal of the tweet, but China had other plans. Not only did China fail to apologize, but it mobilized the entire country’s state-owned and private media outlets to criticize the West in general and Australia in particular for “trampling on democracy, human rights and freedom” in Afghanistan and for their “double standards and typical hypocrisy.”
Relations between China and Australia have not always been so tense. The two countries have strong economic ties, hold annual government dialogues, and cooperate in research, culture, education, and the environment. Australia is home to 1.2 million citizens of Chinese descent, who make up about 5% of the population and are an integral part of Australian culture, politics and history.
China is Australia’s most important trading partner. The latter provides China with vital strategic resources, including more than 60% of its iron-ore imports, vital to its development, and upwards of half of its thermal-coal imports. The recent widespread power outages that have plagued Chinese citizens living near sub-zero regions are thought to be the result of a 47% drop in Australian coal imports in October.
When the atmosphere was warmer in 2014, Xi Jinping visited Australia on the sidelines of the Group of Twenty summit, and the two sides elevated their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, the highest level in Chinese diplomacy. A year later, the two sides signed a free-trade agreement as China became Australia’s largest trading partner for the 11th year running.
However, several trends that emerged at the beginning of the decade put a damper on relations. Particularly noteworthy were the US pivot toward Asia and the growing disputes between China and its neighbors over territories in the South and East China Seas due to Beijing’s liberal interpretation of maritime borders. In parallel, Australia has become a leading advocate for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
From mid-decade onward, Canberra has felt that Beijing’s growing assertiveness and illegal maritime activities ominously undermine peace and stability in the region. For its part, China began to see Australia more as a southern strategic-military anchor of the US than as a Chinese partner.
In 2016, there also were several high-profile cases of Chinese interference in Australia’s politics and economy, as well as attempts to suppress academic freedom of expression. This led the Australian government to pass a series of foreign-interference laws in 2017.
A year later, it was the first country to block Chinese telecom powerhouse Huawei on the grounds of national-security interests, having previously blocked its participation in a tender for a national broadband-network contract.
In the same year, Morrison tried to “torpedo” Victoria’s entry to the Belt and Road Initiative (as the 14-point Chinese grievance list put it), a move that could yet be acted upon after passage this month of a new Australian Foreign Relations Bill.
China has reiterated its litany of complaints to major media outlets, and echoed them in Foreign Ministry briefings, without acknowledging Beijing’s own role in the deterioration of relations. This reduces the likelihood that Australia can negotiate matters without appearing as kowtowing to China. The photoshopped Australian soldier incident is just the icing on the cake.
Why the rift with Australia?
The Chinese took very seriously the initiative of the Australian foreign minister to conduct an independent investigation (in April 2020) into the handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, an initiative that was taken without any consultation with Beijing.
Australia was the first country to make such a request publicly at a time when US President Donald Trump’s administration was vigorously promoting the “China virus” narrative. Beijing believed that Australia was currying favor with the US at Chinese expense.
It was the last straw for the Chinese, atop other matters mentioned earlier, such as Australian leadership of international claims against Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea, foreign-interference laws aimed at opposing China’s economic and technological undertakings (like the blocking of Huawei), and condemnations of human-rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
China believes that Australia is abusing “freedom of expression” to foster an “anti-China” atmosphere.
Examples that have received widespread official attention in China include statements by a group of hawkish Australian parliamentarians who call themselves the Wolverines; publications and reports by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) on the Xinjiang Data Project, which highlights Beijing’s systematic human-rights violations against ethnic minorities; and a children’s comedy sketch showing Wu Zetian, the only empress in the history of the Chinese dynasties, dressed in a stereotypical costume while using chopsticks to eat cockroaches.
Australia is a member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, along with Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, whose activities are rooted in Cold War pacts. In November, the alliance criticized Beijing for impeaching Hong Kong lawmakers. One month earlier, Australia participated in a naval exercise with the US, Japan and India – China’s strategic rivals – which added to Beijing’s suspicions that this is a framework whose entire purpose is to contain China’s growing presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
In short, Beijing feels that Australia has become complicit in a US-led Western scheme to contain China’s rise. These feelings are well summarized in an anonymous article published in early December that went viral on the Chinese Web and was even quoted by the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.
In “I can, you can’t: Looking at the Western psyche from the Australian episode,” the author argues that a sense of superiority “has become a permanent factor in the modus operandi of white Europeans and Americans. ‘In any action, I (white European-Americans) must be in a dominant position while you (Chinese) are in an inferior position.”
Because of this, the feeling of many Chinese is that the West thinks it is the sole arbiter of that can impose sanctions on other countries, block 5G technology and chips, sell weapons to hostile factions, criticize the human-rights conditions of other countries, and have provocative diplomats. But when China does the same, everyone cries havoc.
Without dwelling on the merits of the Chinese claim, it is understood from the above that Beijing’s relationship with Canberra has reached a breaking point. There are several possible explanations for Beijing pushing its relations with Australia to this point.
First, after failing to lower the flames through traditional channels, Beijing is trying to force Australian behavior through economic means.
Second, while the world is preoccupied with the Covid pandemic and facing economic recession, China has managed to contain the virus and is experiencing economic growth. In Beijing’s view, this puts it in an unprecedented position to reassert its standing on the global stage.
Beijing is testing the limits of its power through the democratic and most loyal ally of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region – and the weakest member of the Quad – in preparation for future confrontations with other countries that may oppose its ascendancy down the road.
At the end of November, China’s top diplomat and a Politburo member, Yang Jiechi, who serves as director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China, published an article in party mouthpiece The People’s Daily. Yang wrote that amid many external challenges, “China’s international influence and appeal are constantly growing.”
Third, China is mobilizing its economic, propaganda and political tools to exert enough pressure on Australia to dissuade its government and citizens from engaging in anti-China behavior in the future. Other middle powers, witnessing Australia’s plight under Chinese duress, will think twice before acting against Chinese interests and treat China with the “respect” commensurate with its major-power status.
Fourth, China knows from past diplomatic crises with other middle powers that relations with Canberra will return to normal. Australia has limited options.
The global economic crisis in the wake of the first wave of the pandemic has plunged Australia into its first recession in 29 years, and it cannot afford to wage a war of economic attrition against its largest trading partner. It has been calculated that a trade war would cost Australia up to 6% of its GDP, compared with China’s 0.5%.
Fifth, China is using the sensitive transition period in the United States through January 20 to test how the incoming Joe Biden administration will respond to China’s assertiveness. As a member of the Five Eyes coalition and an important strategic partner of the US, Australia is a testing ground for Biden’s red lines in relation to other countries.
(As of early December, the strongest reaction was a tweet from incoming national security adviser Jack Sullivan, who said the US would stand by Australia.)
How Israel should react
A cursory look at the 14-point document shows that Israel also has “violated” at least six of the points, including its decision to establish an advisory board to oversee foreign investment, its de facto ban on Huawei and ZTE’s 5G infrastructure, and its “antagonistic” coverage of China in the Israeli press.
As noted earlier, these “red lines” already have been identified by Beijing and are frequently mentioned in every other regular press conference of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Moreover, Australia is not the first country to face Chinese pressure for allegedly infringing Chinese interests.
Ranging from Japan through Norway, China has in the past “punished” or sought to impose policy changes on other countries through plausible deniability, such as issuing travel warnings (stopping organized tourism), encouraging “patriotic consumption” (boycotts), “exit bans” (detaining foreign nationals), and anti-dumping measures (selective tariffs).
The publication of the Chinese list suggests that this will not be the last case and that the phenomenon is expected to become even more widespread.
In Israel, there have also been instances of apparent pressure from China. The last reported case was in 2018 after President Trump announced the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In response, the Chinese Embassy in Israel issued a travel warning to its citizens, which was likely the reason behind the decline in Chinese tourists that year.
Like Australia, Israel is a developed democracy with a relatively small population. It is a regional power and a close ally of the United States. To a lesser extent, Israel exports to China strategic resources (mainly microchips, fertilizers and chemicals), creating an interdependent relationship.
On the other hand, the geographical proximity of China and Australia, as well as the degree of bilateral ties in terms of commerce, culture and history, are significantly more important than in the Sino-Israeli relationship.
The dynamics are also completely different in terms of strategic, geopolitical and other qualitative dimensions, as evidenced by Canberra’s Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Beijing compared with China’s Comprehensive Innovation Partnership.
However, the lessons and implications that democracies can draw from the ongoing events between Beijing and Canberra are numerous, so it is surprising that the topic has not received more extensive coverage in Israel and the West. (A longer version of this article published by the Jerusalem Institute of Strategic Studies includes suggestions for Israeli policy in light of recent developments.)
Israel’s dependence on China is not on par with that of Australia, but the economic relationship between the two countries has strengthened considerably over the past decade. Today, China is Israel’s second-largest trading partner, a relationship that has been a boon to the average Israeli consumer.
Despite external pressures, the bilateral relationship remains positive, and it is important for both countries to maintain this trend in the post-pandemic recession period.
However, if China is willing to cross swords with Australia, it goes without saying that it will not hesitate to apply economic leverage and consumer boycotts against Israel. Jerusalem must not develop a dependence on China, and it should prepare for an extreme scenario of a near-immediate cessation of economic ties.
The confidence and aggressive diplomacy currently being employed by the Chinese government is almost unprecedented, and increasingly will be reflected in friction between China and other countries.
Whether Australia is a canary in the coal mine – a warning sign for the world’s democracies – or just an isolated diplomatic episode, Israel and the West would do well to monitor the Australian situation. It could be the beginning of a trend in Chinese foreign policy.
Countries ought to learn from this situation how to maintain good relations with Beijing without compromising Western sovereignty and values.