From South China Sea beef to actual beef, China-Australia ties had soured long before onset of COVID-19

While the 'COVID-19 inquiry' appears to be the cause behind Beijing's anti-Australia trade decisions, it would immature to count out China's ambitions in the Pacific and South China Sea as the main guiding factor

FP Staff June 11, 2020 09:21:21 IST
From South China Sea beef to actual beef, China-Australia ties had soured long before onset of COVID-19

China’s Ministry of Education had on Tuesday warned students to reconsider returning to Australia, saying there had been a spate of racist incidents targeting Asians during the coronavirus pandemic.

If Chinese students choose to follow through, the advisory is likely to hurt the Australian economy, which is already facing its worst recession in 30 years.

According to Department of Education data, reported by Reuters, China is Australia’s most important trading partner and sends the most international students, accounting for 37.3 percent of 4,42,209 overseas students in higher education in 2019.

This advisory, however, is not the only decision that Beijing has taken lately that will have an impact on the Australian economy, amid a worsening of ties between the two countries in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

From South China Sea beef to actual beef ChinaAustralia ties had soured long before onset of COVID19

Representational image. AP

Just last week, the Chinese culture and tourism ministry advised its citizens against travelling to Australia due to racial discrimination and violence stemming from the coronavirus outbreak.

Last month, it practically halted imports of Australian barley after raising import duties, right after suspending import of Australian beef over a labelling issue.

China is the No 1 market for Australian beef, accounting for about 30 percent of exports. It’s also the biggest foreign buyer of Australian barley.

What's happening between China and Australia?

Based on recent reports, China, it would seem, is displeased with Australia for siding with the US in demanding an international enquiry into the origin of the novel coronavirus and China's handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

The novel coronavirus, which has affected millions first emerged in Wuhan, China, before it spread across the world.

The US has alleged that China hid details from the world about the coronavirus outbreak in its country. And Australia agrees.

There's crucial evidence supporting it too. Most recently, the recordings of the internal meetings of WHO, who the US has called a Chinese puppet, emerged revealing how China delayed sending crucial data on coronavirus to the world health body.

The WHO has bowed to calls from most of its member states to launch an independent probe into how it managed the international response to the virus, which was first found in China late last year. The evaluation would stop short of looking into contentious issues such as the origins of the virus.

Beijing has maintained that its trade actions are unrelated to Australia's push for an inquiry.

This, however, is improbable, as soon after the inquiry call, Cheng Jingye, China’s ambassador to Australia, had said that Chinese consumers could boycott Australian beef, wine, tourism and universities.

And China has followed through.

International education is Australia’s fourth-largest foreign exchange earner, worth $26 billion annually, and more critical to the economy than beef or barley.

The Australian economy, which is facing its first recession in 30 years because of the coronavirus, would suffer deeply if Chinese students heeded the warning from their government to stay away because of racist incidents, reports said.

The claims of racism, however, are not unfounded as the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper had last week reported a survey conducted by the Per Capita think tank that had documented 386 racist incidents  —  ranging from abuse to physical intimidation and spitting  — since 2 April.

The target of these racist incidents were Asian Australians, the report added.

However, Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the the Group of Eight, representing Australia’s top universities, told Reuters that the "the Chinese embassy hadn’t received any reports of students being attacked during the pandemic".

“International education is being used as a political pawn,” she said.

It's all about influence

It's no secret that Beijing has always used access to the vast Chinese market as a weapon against its critics from Norway to Canada.

According to AP, in 2019, Beijing blocked imports of canola as it stepped up pressure for Canada to release a Huawei executive who was detained on US charges. The Chinese government said it found pests in Canadian shipments, which the suppliers said was unlikely.

In 2010, China blocked imports of Norwegian salmon and canceled trade talks after dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by an independent committee appointed by Norway’s parliament.

China began blocking imports of Philippine bananas in 2012 in a dispute over territory in the South China Sea. Beijing lifted import curbs only after Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte launched a diplomatic campaign to increase trade, political and investment ties with China.

From South China Sea beef to actual beef ChinaAustralia ties had soured long before onset of COVID19

Representational image. AP

An increasingly brazen China has been doing the same thing with Australia since 2018 when Australia blocked Chinese-owned tech company Huawei from rolling out a new 5G network, citing security concerns.

In fact, last year, China suspended imports of Australian coal after Australia’s government rescinded a visa for a prominent Chinese businessman.

Currently, the 'COVID-19 inquiry' appears to be the cause behind Beijing's anti-Australia trade decisions, it would immature to count out China's ambitions in the Pacific and South China Sea as the main guiding factor.

From the South China Sea to the Pacific, Beijing and Canberra have a long list of issues that have been brewing up for more than half a decade.

Australia has in the past, even accused that China is meddling in Australia’s affairs and seeking undue influence in the Pacific region.

According to an article in Foreign Policy, China has been pursuing a “debt-trap diplomacy" or "payday loan diplomacy", which includes "targeting vulnerable countries with unsustainable debts" in order to increase its political influence in the Pacific.

According to the report, several island countries, particularly Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu in the Pacific, are already indebted to China.

Some of the infrastructure projects, especially a wharf built by China on Espiritu Santo island in Vanuatu, some 2,000 kilometres from Australia, have also been seen as a threat by Australia for quite some time.

The growing challenges in the Pacific have led to a strengthening of defence ties between India and Australia as well. Most recently, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison even supported a greater role for New Delhi in the keeping the Indo-Pacific open.

China’s territorial claims in the strategically important South China Sea, where it is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple territorial disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons, is another point of contention.

The waters are a major shipping route for global commerce and are rich in fish and possible oil and gas reserves.

Australia has not only completely rejected Beijing's claims over the South China Sea, but lately, it has also been flexing its muscles along with ally US. Most recently, an Australian warship HMAS Parramatta conducted exercises with the US Navy, flaring tensions in the region.

Besides, Australia has also spoken out over China’s proposed national security laws for Hong Kong, which critics say undermines freedom in the former British colony.

China, meanwhile, has maintained this trade disruption is not related to any political clash. But the state-owned newspaper The Global Times has a completely different view on the topic.

In May, calling Australia 'delusional' in expecting normal trade with China over COVID-19 inquiry, The Global Times wrote this: "A favorable political environment cannot exist without contributions from both sides, which is why we hope Australia will rethink its hostile attitude toward China. If tensions continue on their current trajectory, it would be delusional to expect trade relations to remain on track."

“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too, is a proverb that could be of use to some Australian officials, who continue to escalate tensions with China while hoping bilateral trade will remain intact,” the article added while playing down the economic interdependence between the two countries.

With inputs from agencies

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