- The sharp deterioration of Sino-Australian relations reflects rising anti-China sentiment in Australia and Beijing's increasingly combative diplomatic approach.
- Beijing wants to make an example of Australia, sending a message to the world that acting against China's interests carries significant costs.
- But China's aggressive approach also reflects political incentives within the Communist Party, where diplomats must constantly demonstrate their nationalist fighting spirit.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman tweeted on 29 November about alleged war crimes by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, provoking a furious response from Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The incident marks a new low point for the Sino-Australian relationship, following a series of trade sanctions that Beijing has imposed on Australian exports this year. Tariffs on Australian wine last week followed earlier curbs on imports of Australian coal, barley, copper, timber, and lobster.
As previously discussed, the deterioration of the bilateral relationship began around 2017 but accelerated sharply after Morrison called for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, becoming the first country to issue such a demand. China's Foreign Ministry distributed a list of 14 grievances towards Canberra with Australian media on 17 November. The complaints included: blocking Chinese companies' investments in Australia; banning Huawei from Australia's 5G network; a new “foreign interference” law that targets China; “spreading disinformation imported from the US” about the coronavirus; harassment of Chinese journalists in Australia; and “wanton interference” in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang. Beijing is also unhappy about Australia's new defense agreement with Japan.
Beijing's aggressive rhetoric and actions are intended partly as a warning to other countries that acting against China's interests comes at a price, especially if those countries appear to be supporting US efforts to contain China. Chinese leaders likely view the economic relationship with Australia as largely expendable, since most Australian exports to China are replaceable. The exception is iron ore, Australia's largest export, which has not been subject to Chinese sanctions. Australian iron ore accounted for 62% of China's total such imports in 2019, and no other supplier offers a plausible alternative.
Galvanizing global opposition
The risk for Beijing is that its hardline approach will backfire by galvanizing and unifying global opposition. Anti-China sentiment is already at historic highs in rich countries, according to a Pew Research Center survey published in October. Among the 14 countries surveyed, the recent increase in negative views was largest in Australia, but China hawks in various countries are warning that Australia is the “canary in the coal mine” for how countries that offend Beijing will be treated.
Indeed, Australia's attempt to balance a security alliance with the US and a lucrative trade relationship with China mirrors the dilemma facing other countries. Even as Morrison demanded an apology for the offensive tweet, he also expressed his desire that the bilateral relationship could be a “happy coexistence of two partners.” Australian business interests have quietly lobbied for de-escalation and at least some actions to address Chinese concerns, but the rise in anti-China sentiment among the broader public pushes in the opposite direction, as Morrison appears to see political benefit in a confrontational approach.
In fact, some Australian political observers interpreted Morrison's call in April for a coronavirus investigation as part of an intentional strategy to strengthen Canberra's relationship with Washington by demonstrating Australia's relevance to US interests. Such a strategy may have come in response to concerns that the US commitment to traditional alliances in the Asia Pacific was weakening under President Donald Trump.
In response to the wine tariffs, the Trump administration's National Security Council said it would serve Australian wine at a White House holiday reception. More significantly, President-Elect Joe Biden's incoming National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, said “America will stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally Australia and rally fellow democracies.” But so far, other major governments have not issued public statements about the Sino-Australian dispute.
Strategy or side effect?
A key question is to what extent Beijing's hardline approach towards Australia is motivated by a rational calculation of costs and benefits, as opposed to emerging as a byproduct of political incentives internal to the Communist Party. As previously discussed, Beijing's more aggressive foreign policy – and in particular, “wolf warrior”-style rhetoric from Chinese diplomats – appears to be driven in part by the imperative for officials to demonstrate their ideological loyalty and nationalist fighting spirit to top leaders.
Both factors likely play some role. Beijing clearly wants to signal its willingness to punish countries that act against its interests, and the long series of trade sanctions against Australia cannot be dismissed as freelancing by ambitious diplomats. On the other hand, the aggressive tone and style of Beijing's diplomatic pronouncements probably does reflect the incentives facing diplomats like Zhao Lijian, the Foreign Ministry spokesman responsibly for the recent war crimes tweet and earlier suggestions that the US military brought the coronavirus to Wuhan.
Earlier this year, there were signs that some elements within China's foreign policy apparatus had grown uncomfortable with the wolf warrior approach and were moving to rein it in. A think tank associated with China's intelligence agency reportedly warned in April that global anti-China sentiment was at its highest level since 1989. But while some Chinese elder statesman – like Ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai – oppose wolf warrior tactics, China's top leaders have not moved decisively to curtail such behavior. Looking ahead, the prospects for a more measured Chinese approach look dim. The more Beijing feels under attack by western countries, the more that its diplomats may default to strident nationalism and the less ability elder statesmen may have to restrain them.