A turning point, or a storm in a wine glass?

Australia and China are in an increasingly bitter diplomatic row prompted by Ambassador Cheng Jingye’s recent comments, which are seen by some as a thinly-veiled threat against Australia’s economic interests. However one chooses to characterise these comments, it’s clear that this endless and tiring rhetorical dance and current media narratives are counterproductive to bilateral relations.

As David points out below “[t]he episode only highlights once again the deep contradictions that plague Australia’s China policy.”

This article was first published on the new China Story blog of which Neican is now a part.

- Yun and Adam


David Brophy, senior lecturer in modern Chinese history, University of Sydney.

Last Friday, Ambassador Cheng Jingye’s musings that people in China might reduce their consumption of Australian beef and wine exports have set off an intense, ongoing stoush between his embassy and Australian officials. But Cheng is only telling us what should already be obvious: the COVID blame game is stoking animosity towards China and its people. The fierce outrage that pundits are now directing the ambassador’s way is doubly curious when you consider that many of the same voices have long been arguing to reduce Australia’s trade dependency on China. The episode only highlights once again the deep contradictions that plague Australia’s China policy.

An outbreak of COVID nationalism

COVID-19 has triggered a wave of nationalism and finger-pointing towards China. As the virus hit, the Foreign Investment Review Board set its screening threshold to $0, with much anxious talk of Chinese companies swooping in to buy up the country. Chinese Australians have been depicted as predators for exporting masks and Personal Protective Equipment to Wuhan at the height of its crisis, and as subversive influence-peddlers when they imported the same items back from China to Australia. In Andrew Hastie’s view, ties to China make us vulnerable to “supply-chain warfare.”

Shock jocks and the tabloid press have had a field day, with Sky News hosts endorsing wild conspiracy theories of COVID-19 as a deliberate Chinese Communist Party plot. “Making China pay for breaking the world” was how 60 Minutes billed one of its recent episodes on the virus. The Daily Telegraph, predictably enough, has gone into overdrive: Tim Blair’s cracks at bat-eating Chinese; a sympathetic profile of a man who brandished a whip while ranting at Chinese bystanders for knowingly spreading the virus; this week’s “BATMAN” front page featuring the mugshot of a respected Chinese virologist. The list could go on. 

White Australia might imagine it can binge on bat jokes and endless media images associating Chinese people with a dangerous virus, all without any consequences. Australians of Asian appearance know otherwise, of course, with an upsurge of racist attacks in the last two months. Asian Australians have had to take note of the alarming rise in anti-Chinese sentiment. Do we think that people in China won’t?

Chinese international students are now among the most vulnerable in this climate, with racism rubbing salt into the wounds of lost part-time jobs and disruption to studies. The Prime Minister, though, delivered a blunt message to these visitors. “It’s time to go home,” he told them, cutting them off from Jobkeeper benefits that might keep them in work. 

What did the Chinese ambassador make of all this? He said, reasonably enough, that the climate in Australia could eventually cause the parents of Chinese students to ask “whether [Australia], which they found is not so friendly, even hostile, is the best place to send their kids to.” Was this a veiled threat, or simply a statement of the obvious?

Probing Morrison’s strategy

To be sure, much of Cheng’s Friday interview with Andrew Tillett dwelt on Scott Morrison’s call for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19. But China doesn’t have to “coerce” Australia to scotch those plans. All that requires is a simple “no,” which was always going to be Beijing’s response to this proposal. 

Even at the best of times, it’s hard to see China allowing outsiders to snoop around its labs. Morrison only made things worse by invoking the example of “UN weapons inspectors.” Apart from the provocative analogy here between COVID-19 and WMDs, let’s think about what else this reference implies. UN resolutions required that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, for example, give inspectors “immediate and unconditional access to any weapons sites and facilities.”

Can anyone imagine the United States, in the wake of the 2007-8 global financial crisis, allowing foreign forensic accountants “immediate and unconditional access” to its financial institutions and their balance books?

As many have already said, political grandstanding will only get in the way of the scientific collaboration that’s needed to trace the origins and transmission paths of the COVID-19 virus. So far, the chief value for Morrison in floating his proposal for an international investigation has been to have China shoot it down. That then permits the next rhetorical move in the game of tit-for-tat, which Peter Hartcher provided on Tuesday. In his view, China’s opposition to Morrison’s scheme “suggests the Beijing regime has a lot to hide.” The mystery deepens.

Today’s COVID-19 conspiracy theories are too outlandish for most Australian politicians and commentators to embrace openly, the way Republican right-wingers like Tom Cotton have in the United States. But at the same time, in focusing people’s COVID-induced frustrations and anxieties on China, they’re far too politically valuable to completely hose down. A nice climate of uncertainty serves just as well, in which they can continue to fester and influence public opinion on China. That where we’ve now ended up.

Newscorp’s BATMAN “exclusive” on Tuesday is a good example of the propagandistic logic at work here. We’re told that the Five Eyes intelligence agencies are on the trail of two scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology who once did stints at CSIRO. Of course, “[t]he Daily Telegraph does not suggest the two scientists are responsible for the outbreak or spread of COVID-19.” But still, the spooks must be onto something, right?

No cure in sight

For Australia’s foreign policy establishment, the best of all possible worlds is one in which Australia supports the United States to retain its dominant position in East Asia, while losing as little skin off its nose as possible in trade with China. 

In the first weeks of 2020, voices from the defence and intelligence world greeted the arrival of COVID-19 with an unmistakable sense of opportunity. That’s since been tempered, though, by the spectacle of American dysfunction and failure. In this situation, the instinctive response of Australian politicians and pundits has been to step up and ensure that the spotlight of global recriminations for COVID-19 remains on Beijing. The accompanying rise in anti-Chinese racism will be deplored by all, but it’s an unavoidable by-product of the course we’re on. 

This dynamic explains the desire to fan the dying embers of Morrison’s inquiry plan into a diplomatic conflagration. But the injured response to Cheng Jingye’s mild interview tells us something else as well. For all the tough talk about sucking up the economic consequences of confronting China, Australia’s China hawks have yet to really come to terms with the implications of the policies they’re advocating. 

For years now, commentators have been warning us of Australia’s dependency on China. “Australia is far too reliant on an unreliable nation,” as Chris Uhlmann put it recently. They’ve also told us that Australia will have to tough out the likely economic impact of standing up to Beijing: “If we value our freedom, Australians will need to remain resolute and take the pain,” Clive Hamilton wrote in Silent Invasion. A reduction in trade with China has been widely discussed as a predictable, indeed desirable, outcome of Australia’s policies. You’d think, then, that we’d be comfortable enough with what Cheng Jingye was saying. But no, we’re crying foul, and denouncing him as a bully and an extortionist.

Australia’s China policy is a mass of contradictions, but one thing remains constant: our ability to position ourselves as the victim. Anyone who was serious about diversifying Australia’s exports, or “decoupling” from China, would be buying Ambassador Cheng a beer. To kick up such a stink at the thought that Chinese mums and dads might take their business elsewhere really only shows how reliant Australia still is on China.