China's bullying of Australia and weaponising of market access holds important lessons for democracies like India

China’s rhetoric has steadily become more acidic and it has stepped up its bullying as it sees economic measures failing to achieve what it seeks: reversal of Australia’s decisions that go against China’s interests.

Sreemoy Talukdar December 03, 2020 11:53:27 IST
China's bullying of Australia and weaponising of market access holds important lessons for democracies like India

Location of China and Australia. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The diplomatic crisis between China and Australia has reached such a tipping point that a prominent Australian newspaper has called the state of the relationship at “50-year-low since Gough Whitlam established ties in 1973.” While the crisis has been simmering for a long time, it exploded when a Chinese diplomat posted a doctored image on Twitter that showed an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child, seeking to disparage Australian armed forces and publicly humiliate Canberra.

Beijing’s escalating hostility, rejection of all diplomatic overtures, punitive pressure on Australian exports and challenge to Australia’s sovereignty belie the liberal theory that greater economic interdependence reduces the chances of geopolitical conflict between states. It also holds important lessons for India that is locked in a grave territorial standoff and seeking to reduce its economic exposure to China.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s tweet, that caused a furious Australian prime minister Scott Morrison to demand an apology, is a case study in the way authoritarian states use democratic tools to shape their narratives.

Zhao’s tweet was a reference to the alleged war crimes in Afghanistan by Australian special forces, the revelation of which has taken Australia by storm.

A report by Major General Paul Brereton after a four-year-investigation — acting on tips from whistleblowers and local media reports on atrocities by Australian forces on unarmed Afghani civilians — has found “credible information” that “up to 25 serving and former elite Australian soldiers were involved in — and covered up — alleged war crimes in Afghanistan” that included murdering 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners, “blooding‘’ new recruits by forcing them to shoot unarmed detainees in incidents that have been called “the most shameful chapter in the nation’s military history.” The alleged crimes were “commenced, committed, continued and concealed” by corporals and sergeants in the field over the period 2009-13, reveals The Australian.

The ‘Brereton report’, as the heavily redacted account is being called, resulted in public fury, calls for disbanding of the Special Air Services regiment and contrition among Australian leaders. Prime Minister Morrison rang up Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani to apologise and express “deepest sorrow”, chief of the defence force Angus Campbell described the incident as “shameful”, “deeply disturbing” and “appalling”, promised reforms of armed forces and sacked at least 10 SAS soldiers.

It is evident that members of Australian armed forces stationed in Afghanistan have been found guilty of war crimes, but it has been the result of Australia’s own, thorough investigation followed by a public indictment of the forces’ offences. This openness, however, presents crucial leverage to China which has exploited the opportunity to set the narrative about Australia’s transgressions to deflect from the laundry list of human rights abuses that it is guilty of. China is culpable for worse rights abuses but in contrast with Australia’s transparency and self-corrective measures, Beijing has remained in constant denial of its practices and has sought to impose costs on states or institutions that have pointed finger at it.

The very fact that a comparison is being made between democratic Australia, which ranks high in any human rights index and authoritarian China that scrapes the bottom along with dictatorial states must count as a narrative victory of sorts for China whose violations of human rights abuses include grave crimes against its own people — the Uyghur Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has been accused of waging a targeted campaign against Uyghur women, men, and children, and members of other Turkic Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang and documented abuses of coercive population control methods, forced labour, arbitrary detention in internment camps, torture, physical and sexual abuse, mass surveillance, family separation, and repression of cultural and religious expression.

China has reportedly imprisoned about one million citizens of predominantly Muslim ethnicity in detainment camps where, according to some first-hand accounts, they are routinely tortured. Beijing has taken steps to slash birth rates among Uyghurs and other minorities as part of a sweeping campaign to curb its Muslim population, even as it encourages some of the country’s Han majority to have more children, according to investigative reports in western media.

ASPI, an Australian think tank, has launched the Xinjiang Data Project, that conducts empirical research on the human rights situation for Uyghurs and other non-Han nationalities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in western China. It focuses on a core set of topics including mass internment camps, surveillance and emerging technologies, forced labour and supply chains, the ‘re-education’ campaign, deliberate cultural destruction and other human rights issues.

And we haven’t yet touched upon China’s crackdown on citizens’ rights in Hong Kong where a draconian law has been promulgated to quash all dissent within its borders and even abroad, pro-democracy activists have been jailed and entire political opposition to the puppet Carrie Lam government wiped out.

China bristles at the very mention of these developments, and recently reacted to a joint statement by the Five Yes Intelligence (Australia, New Zealand, UK, Canada and the US) — criticising China’s imposition of new rules to disqualify elected legislators in Hong Kong — by saying that the “five eyes will be poked blind” if they interfere in China’s internal affairs.

China has dismissed Morrison’s demand of apology over the doctored tweet and Zhao, a mid-level bureaucrat in China’s foreign ministry, in an act of contempt has pinned it to his Twitter profile to convey to Australia what it thinks of Prime Minister Morrison’s outrage. China’s bullying and public humiliation of Australia is seemingly an effort to make an example of Canberra so that other states are warned before crossing swords with Beijing.

In CCP’s playbook, Australia — which counts China as its largest export destination and has for decades profited from accessing China’s market — has crossed Beijing’s red lines in becoming the first country to ban Huawei and ZTE’s from providing 5G technology, promulgate foreign interference laws that seek to curb Beijing’s interference with Australian politics, universities and media and push for an independent international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus that apparently rubbed Beijing the wrong way.

China has since scaled up its punishment meter against Australia with a series of punitive steps aimed at imposing costs on Canberra for daring to stand its ground against Beijing. China’s coercive measures on trade weaponise market access for Australian goods and exploit the fact that the Australian economy is heavily dependent on the Chinese market.

As Sydney Morning Herald notes, “39% of Australian exports go to China. Australia is the most dependent of all the Five Eyes states on imported products from China and strategically dependent on China for 595 categories of goods, more than any other Five Eyes nation”. An export-oriented market, goods and services constituted 22 percent of the Australian economy in 2019 of which one-third went to China, say reports. CNN points out, quoting researchers at the University of Western Australia and Australian National University, “should nearly all trade between the two be shut down, that would cost Australia some 6% of GDP.”

This unhealthy dependence has meant Australia is ripe for the picking, and China has increased Australia’s pain by either banning or imposing heavy tariffs on a range of imports including coal, barley, copper, sugar, timber, wine and lobster while sparing materials like iron ore or natural gas where curbs could damage China’s own economy. The ban on barley and lobster has hit Australia particularly hard, considering that China is Australia’s largest barley export market, buying around 70 per cent of Australian barley, and nearly all of Australia’s rock lobster exports, worth around $527 million last year went to the Chinese market, reports SCMP.

Recently, China imposed an eye-watering 200 per cent tariff on Australian wine that may have a devastating impact on Australia’s small exporters, grape growers and communities associated with wine production. China is Australia’s top wine destination, accounting for 39 percent of total exports for the 12 months ending September 2020, according to Wine Australia and according to a CNBC report, China is also the “highest price-point market” for Australian wines, where exporters make more money in terms of dollar per litre value than anywhere else.

As coal and timber cargo rot in Shanghai ports and lobsters perish in the tarmac failing to clear Chinese customs, China’s tactics are becoming clearer. It is imposing costs to force a change in Australia’s stance, and its punitive message is tailored to the minutest detail. For instance, while most Australian wines are facing almost 200 percent tariffs or more, a particular brand called Australia Swan Vintage will have the lowest tariff rate of any of the producers targeted. The reason? It lists former Australian ambassador to Beijing, Geoff Raby, who has promoted greater dialogue and business links with China during the trade dispute, as its brand ambassador, according to a report in Sydney Morning Herald.

These low-brow tactics, thuggish threats and escalating belligerence from the ruling Chinese Communist Party hinge on a more serious message that China is trying to send across. It is telling Australia that Canberra’s carefully calibrated strategy of profiting from the Chinese market and staying within the strategic embrace of its ally United States is becoming increasingly untenable. It was a viable strategy so long as China wasn’t ready to project power. Now that Beijing has become the world’s second-largest economy and a strategic competitor of the US, it wants Australia either to shift away from America’s geopolitical sphere or risk more economic pain.

This is pure power politics from China. It reckons that Australia is in no position to negotiate a better outcome and Canberra can no longer insulate its economic relationship from the fallout of geopolitical rivalry.

As New York Times summarises China’s tactics, “In the eyes of China’s most nationalist ideologues, Australia is violating the most basic rule of China’s rise: If you get rich with our help, stay quiet and grateful. Few countries have gained as much wealth from China’s growth as Australia, and since coming to power in 2012, Xi Jinping has made clear that he expects silence and harmony from all who benefit from the Chinese Communist Party’s prosperity.”

China’s power politics and habit of looking at bilateral relationship through a realist prism has made any overtures from Australia untenable, which is why Beijing has refused to engage diplomatically unless Canberra takes “corrective measures” on the 14-point agenda that it has deliberately leaked to the Australian press.

China’s list of grievances include: “government funding for ‘anti-China’ research at Australian think tanks, raids on Chinese journalists and academic visa cancellations, ‘spearheading a crusade’ in multilateral forums on China’s affairs in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, calling for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19 , banning Huawei from the 5G network in 2018 and blocking 10 Chinese foreign investment deals across infrastructure, agriculture and animal husbandry sectors.”

These demands undermine Australia’s civil liberties, sovereignty and national interests. No political party in a democracy can accede to these ultimatums. China’s rhetoric has steadily become more acidic and it has stepped up its bullying as it sees economic measures failing to achieve what it seeks: reversal of Australia’s decisions that go against China’s interests. If anything, China’s intimidation has led to a hardening of public opinion in Australia and a desperate attempt from Australia’s businesses to diversify away from China.

What we have, therefore, is a relationship that is rapidly spiralling towards explicit conflict, leading Paul Dibb, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, to write that “there is every sign the increasing propensity of Beijing to use “grey zone” bullying, coercion and cyber-attack may be a precursor to the actual use, or threatened use, of military power. If we fail to obtain a warning, a surprise ­attack occurs that catches us unprepared — with all the consequences that implies.”

The worsening of China-Australia ties holds important lessons for democracies around the world, more so for India, that shares the same geographical space, has great power aspirations and operate in the same strategic theatre. The case for democracies to band together to hedge against China’s geo-economic and geopolitical intimidation is hardening, though it is not clear where such mutual support is possible among states without any formal alliance systems. The Quad provides an option, and it could serve as the skeleton for substantial multilateral and plurilateral cooperation between states who find themselves at the crosshairs of a malignant superpower in its assertive rise.


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