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Australia’s beef with China

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 29 May 2020


While there is growing pressure in Australia for a hard-line approach to Beijing’s retaliation against Canberra’s calls for an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, the country, through trade, student links and its own appeasement policies has made a robust response difficult.

The Australian media has been hyping up “China-phobia” over Beijing’s import bans on beef produced at four abattoirs along with tariffs on Australian barley, and a refusal by Trade Minister Simon Birmingham’s Chinese counterpart to take his calls. Tensions have continued to rise with support by 120 countries for Australia’s call on the World Health Organization’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to initiate the international review of the lessons learned from the international health response to Covid-19 at the World Health Assembly.

That has given Australia a sense of vindication despite an email statement by the Chinese Embassy that Australia claiming vindication over its call for an inquiry “is nothing but a joke.” Thus Australian political commentators are warning that the Australia-China relationship is fast falling into hostility amid unsubstantiated reports that China is planning to impose more tariffson Australian goods in the near future.  

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In fact, there are grave concerns from many sections of society that China has encircled Australia. Concerns include the buying up of strategic Australian assets, donations to political parties, spying on students by the Chinese diaspora, the suppression of free speech on Australian university campuses through strongarm Chinese tactics, the use of Australian-generated intellectual property for Chinese military and surveillance development, China’s control of Australian Chinese-language media, undue influence on local government decisions, former Australian politicians acting as consultants to Chinese firms and government, and the alleged infiltration of the Australian parliament of a person with potential loyalties to China. There have even been calls that the Australian government cancel the Chinese-owned company Landbridge’s lease of the Darwin Port.

Outside Australia’s doorstep, there are additional concerns about China’s growing political clout in Papua New Guinea and other Pacific islands like Vanuatu, where there is fear and speculation China may build a military base. The implementation of new Chinese security laws in Hong Kong which destroy the concept of one country two systems, Chinese military expansion within the South China Sea, with the building of potentially armed islands, and maritime altercations with the navies, fishing vessels, and oil exploration vessels in disputed territories are all being perceived as a quickly escalating threat.

Australian defense capabilities are now only coastal and continental based, having long given up its position as a middle military power, impelling China’s Global Times to call Australia “a giant kangaroo that serves as a dog to the US, and will hit a deadlock with China on trade disputes.” Australia has always been reliant on US defense forces for protection – and more so, now that Australian military forces eliminated their projection capabilities with the retirement of their aircraft carrier decades ago.

This was fine with the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” but the Trump administration has tended to withdraw from the Southern Pacific region, refocusing on Northeast Asia. Trump’s quick withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership omnibus trade agreement soon after his inauguration as president cost the US prestige in Southeast Asia, particularly the ASEAN countries.  

Given Australia’s superficial relations with most Southeast Asian nations, China senses opportunity in Australia’s weakness. The symbolic entry into Sydney harbor of three Chinese naval ships on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre last year was symbolic of China’s new-found military confidence within the region.

Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has built upon the narratives of the Patriotic Education Campaign of 1991, using rhetoric that China suffered a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, until the Chinese Communist Party led the fight against the corrupt, culminating in the birth of the People’s Republic in 1949. Xi has also reframed communist doctrine from internationalist narrative to staunch nationalism – China against the rest of the world, with the revolutionary words of ‘struggle’ and ‘self-sufficiency’ forming the basis of the new strategy.

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The aim of China is to reassert itself into a dominant world power through what Xi calls the Chinese dream, a national strategy to restore China to its historical glory, dislodging the US as world leader. The world saw the early signs of this with the impassioned patriotic frenzy at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. It can also be seen within the young Chinese diaspora on Australian university campuses, similar to the radical students of the cultural revolution, fighting against anything they perceive as being anti-Chinese.

The Belt and Road Initiative is state capitalism designed to build a logistical and influence-based network across the world to benefit China and squeeze out the US. China’s aggressive annexation of coral reefs and small islands within the South China Sea can be understood through these narratives. This is only part of the strategy towards the overall goal of seeking economic domination, not through direct military confrontation, but by utilizing a host of non-military means to achieve what could be called “non-conquering dominance”.

The development of Chinese influence in Australia has been gradual, beginning by chance when former Prime Minister Bob Hawke allowed 50,000 Chinese to remain permanently in Australia after the Tiananmen Square massacre. This created a useful diaspora for the Communist Party, as it was unknown at the time that many were members of the CCP and People’s Liberation Army and were either loyal to China or through coercion have assisted China’s needs.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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