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China: Petulant Bully That Can't Quite Work Us Out
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang walk into the Great Hall of the People at the beginning of the Second Plenary Session of the National People's Congress on May 25, 2020 in Beijing, China
Photo by Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images

China: Petulant Bully That Can't Quite Work Us Out

John Lee

Australia was never for turning our position, including on the South China Sea, Huawei, foreign interference and calling for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

Why then does the Chinese Communist Party persist with economic threats and punishments? It is at least as much about rage and malice as it is statecraft and calculation.

For the CCP, everything is about politics. Even mutually beneficial trade and investment is considered Chinese largesse, which can be used to demand allegiance, obedience or silence.

When it comes to foreign policy, the objective is to nurture what Beijing calls strategic support states, and the Belt and Road Initiative has become the primary platform through which governments formally acquiesce to the imminent arrival of an economic and strategic order and hierarchy within which China sits alone and on top.

Unlike the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which builds on World Trade Organisation rules and commitments, the BRI attempts to renegotiate standards, protocols and rules to suit China; to lock out other bidders to produce guaranteed economic rents for Chinese firms. It is why the federal government repeatedly has knocked back invitations to sign on.

Besides being clear-eyed about the political and strategic consequences of putting pen to paper, there is only a poor economic case for it. Since 2013, the volume of Chinese outward investment in non-BRI economies has increased more rapidly than in BRI countries.

This brings us to the flak Daniel Andrews’s government is receiving, which is richly deserved. The BRI has provided respite for weak or failing economies such as Cambodia and Pakistan in return for agreeing to become Chinese client states. Victoria enjoys better economic health, which should allow it to secure investment from multiple sources.

Moreover, the CCP’s method of using inducements and coercion to cause domestic division and weaken national resolve is widely known, as is the use of pro-Beijing entities to sell its mes­sages. The primary fault lies not in organisations such as the Australia-China Belt and Road Initiative but in the positions taken by the Andrews government.

Intruding into external affairs by signing on to the BRI is bad enough. Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas condemning the Morrison government in terms that would have pleased the CCP immensely demonstrates a rare naivety or else stubbornness given all we know.

This brings us to the daring of a smaller country to champion good principles and policy in calling for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19, which has infuriated Beijing. Sunlight is the mortal enemy of repressive systems. After the anger comes retribution and the CCP’s desire to make an example of Australia for refusing to remain silent. Material seduction hasn’t worked? Pain and fear is next.

China has had run-ins with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, The Philippines, Vietnam, India and others. Most have intractable and serious territorial disputes with it.

As the aggressor, this allows ­Beijing to make things difficult for others in non-economic ways; for example, through incursions into disputed territory or supporting and arming rivals such as North Korea and Pakistan when it comes to South Korea and India. It is not always economics.

Australia does not have similar disputes with China or other countries that Beijing can exploit. Along with Japan, Australia is the most important regional ally of the US, which means Beijing must carefully consider how hard to push against us.

Moreover, we have warm and productive relations with every significant power in the region, which cannot be said for most Asian countries.

This amplifies the standing of our messages and makes nonsense of the charge that we remain uncomfortable with our geography and do not understand our neighbours.

The lack of regional animosity towards Australia reduces Chinese capacity for making mischief through using proxies as Beijing has done against Tokyo by encouraging anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea.

In addition to aiming unworthy barbs and insults at Canberra through state press such as the Global Times, this leaves economic punishment. Beijing is resorting to targeting sectors, which presumably will hurt Australia much more than itself. With tourism and tertiary education already in disarray, barley and meat fit the bill.

Beijing’s problem is that domestic voices such as those in Victoria calling on the Morrison government to abandon principle and good policy are declining in number and standing.

Any amateur psychologist realises remaining cowed or caving in guarantees only that one will suffer far greater intimidation in the future. Besides, how could Australia walk back on any of the positions on which we’ve taken a strong stance against China without compromising our national character and interests?

Beijing thought picking on a 10-times-smaller Australian economy was an easy way to teach an upstart a lesson. It is reported there is a hit list of sectors being targeted and, if so, we will feel more pain. But the CCP needs to reassess.

The more it is vengeful, the more advanced economies will adjust in ways Beijing does not want. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the EU, Canada and the US are realising that resilience means China-proofing as much as possible. The latest is Boris Johnson walking back Huawei’s role in Britain’s 5G network.

Australia is standing its ground because it can and must, and ­others increasingly will do the same. China cannot achieve its economic and industrial ambitions if it cannot repair its relationship with these liberal democracies.

Read in The Australian

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