Home / Articles / Social Distancing: Australia’s Relations with China
Affronts to Australia by China’s top diplomat in Canberra and the Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper reached new heights in April 2020. What prompted their verbal barbs was the Australian government’s backing for an independent review into the origins and spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). While Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison may have regarded such a review as a way to avert future pandemics, Beijing saw it as support for finger-pointing at China. Whichever is the case, the affronts shone a light on how Beijing has come to view Australia and what it and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region might expect from China in the future.
Still, China’s diplomatic and editorial barbs were surprising. China has long worked to move Australia closer into its orbit and away from that of the United States. And, by and large, those efforts had been paying off. Over the last decade, several Australian foreign policy analysts had come to believe that greater accommodation of China would be needed to ensure Australia’s future prosperity. Indeed, Canberra has already shown more sensitivity on issues, like Taiwan, which Beijing deemed strategic. But rather than being content with Australia’s gradual shift, China has undertaken actions that could undermine it, from cyber-espionage to political influence-buying in Australia. China’s most recent affronts are likely to deepen Australian concerns over what Chinese power means for the region.
Soon after Australia’s call for an independent review into the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, not only dismissed the idea, but also appeared to threaten Australia with economic retaliation: “Why should [Chinese] go to such a country while it’s not so friendly to China. The tourists may have second thoughts. Maybe the parents of the students would also think whether this place, which they find is not so friendly, even hostile, is the best place to send their kids to… And also, maybe the ordinary people will think why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef.” The editor of the Global Times, Hu Xijin, took that sentiment further on Weibo: “Australia is always there, making trouble. It is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes. Sometimes you have to find a stone to rub it off.”
Unsurprisingly, the Australian government asked Cheng to clarify his comments, which many Australians interpreted as “economic coercion.” Hu quickly took to Twitter. He wrote: “Let me give a ‘coercion’ to Australia. As its attitude toward China becomes worse and worse, Chinese companies will definitely reduce economic cooperation with Australia, and the number of Chinese students & visitors going to Australia will also decrease.” Then, after Australia’s foreign minister spoke with Cheng, the Chinese embassy in Canberra breached diplomatic protocol by publicly releasing their conversation, evidently to show that the Australian government’s pursuit of an international review not only lacked conviction, but also was politically motivated. The Chinese embassy urged Canberra to stop such “political games.”
Meanwhile, the Global Times indignantly referred to the notion of an independent review as “an all-out crusade against China and Chinese culture” and warned that “Canberra is treading on a hazardous path that has no prospect for a U-turn.” Two weeks later, China suspended beef imports from four of Australia’s abattoirs over inspection and quarantine violations. Despite official Chinese claims to the contrary, the Global Times made it clear that the suspension was meant as a “wake-up call” for Australia and more economic retaliation could follow.
Flag Follows Trade
China’s economic leverage over Australia is well known. Australia’s economy has grown for nearly three decades without a recession, thanks chiefly to China. Its demand for all sorts of Australian goods, from coal and iron ore to cattle and agricultural products, soared over that time. By 2019, China was the destination for over one-third or about $88 billion-worth of Australia’s exports. At the same time, about 17 percent of Australia’s international tourists and 27 percent of its international students hailed from China. Large parts of Australia’s economy have become directly or indirectly reliant on China. Beijing, of course, is keenly aware of that. So, too, are Australian foreign policy analysts.
They are also conscious of China’s growing military might and America’s declining ability and possibly willingness to be the security guarantor in Asia. Unlike the Vietnam Conflict which underscored U.S. security commitments to the region, America’s interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to have distracted Washington from them. Both the Obama administration’s underwhelming “pivot to Asia” and the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership have reinforced the perception that United States is in the midst of a retrenchment.
Hence, some Australian analysts have argued that Canberra should rethink its traditional ties with Washington and take a more balanced approach to China and the United States. Achieving such a balance, however, would not be costless. It would require Australia to make greater efforts to accommodate Chinese interests and more carefully “pick its fights with China.” That would likely entail concessions to China on issues ranging from sovereignty over the South China Sea and Taiwan to human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Still, what most Australian analysts seem to want is a regional order where the United States remains engaged and committed to its security alliances—but also one in which China has room to have a bigger, though not dominant, voice in regional outcomes. They believe that offers the best chance to avoid conflict. But, as a practical matter, governments rarely behave precisely as analysts want. They typically either fall short or go too far. Unfortunately for Australia, given its recent barbs, China looks primed to overshoot.
The Pacific Pendulum
For decades, both of Australia’s major political parties have prioritized their country’s alliance with the United States as the cornerstone of Australia’s national security strategy. The importance of Canberra’s close relationship with Washington was reiterated in Australia’s defense white paper in 2016 and its foreign policy white paper in 2017. But that closeness may have begun to change. Australian politicians of all stripes have put increasing emphasis on maintaining good relations with China, even at the expense of American aims. Labor Party leaders, turned off by President Donald Trump, pushed for an even more independent foreign policy, “with a clear Australian accent.” Though defeated in the 2019 federal election, the Labor Party’s aspiration may endure, perhaps reflecting not only a shift in Australian thinking, but also the preferences of a growing slice of Australia’s electorate, comprised of Chinese immigrants who share China’s views.
Nevertheless, Beijing’s behavior has made it hard for Australia to move closer to China too fast. In 2015, Chinese hackers launched a major cyber-attack on Australia’s Department of Defence and four years later on Australia’s parliament and political parties. In 2016, China’s state-run media chastised Australia as “one of the most delirious countries” and belittled it as not even a “paper tiger,” but a “paper cat” for supporting an international arbitration court’s ruling on the South China Sea. And, when Australia sought to strengthen its defense ties with Japan, China openly cautioned Australia not to do so.
But what really diminished Australian enthusiasm for China were revelations that individuals and organizations with links to the Chinese government have been donating money to Chinese-Australian cultural associations and directly to Australian politicians to influence Australian policymaking. One Labor Party senator who was caught seeking Chinese money was forced to resign. In 2018, Canberra responded by passing legislation to restrict such foreign interference in Australian public life. Given all that, the number of Australians who believe China could be trusted to act responsibly unsurprisingly fell from over 60 percent in 2010 to just 32 percent in 2019.
Even so, China’s latest affronts caught many Australians off guard. While Chinese vituperations against Australia have gone on for years, the affronts’ particularly disdainful tone and overt threats were new. Looked at more broadly, they are telling of how Chinese leaders view the proper dynamics between more and less powerful countries. In that view, China, as a great power, should expect its smaller neighbors to behave in ways that serve, or at least do not clash with, Chinese interests. And, if they do not do so, China is apparently willing to punish them. With hindsight, it seems clear that signs of that view were already evident at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum. When confronted with unexpected challenges from Southeast Asian countries over Chinese activities in the South China Sea, then-Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi dismissively explained, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
Australians are rightly concerned. Chinese ambitions have already far exceeded what many analysts predicted a decade ago. It has become ever clearer that in its international dealings what China ultimately respects is power. Even those who advocate a more conciliatory approach to China have come to recognize that. And so as the Australian government considers its foreign policy choices—from more accommodation of China to greater cooperation with other Asian countries, like India, Indonesia, and Japan—it would be wise to also ponder how Australia can further build up its own military strength and reduce China’s economic leverage over it. Certainly, Australia will have to make choices. But all its choices would benefit from a bit more Australian power.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
 James Reilly, “Counting On China?: Australia’s Strategic Response to Economic Interdependence,” Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Winter 2012), pp. 369–394; Baogang He, “Politics of Accommodation of the Rise of China: The Case of Australia,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 21, No. 73 (January 2012), pp. 53-70; Hugh White, “Power Shift: Rethinking Australia’s Place in the Asian Century,” Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 65, No. 1 (2011), pp. 81-93; and Hugh White, “Power Shift: Australia’s Future Between Washington and Beijing,” Quarterly Essay No 39, (2010), pp. 1-74.
 Damien Cave and Jamie Tarabay, “Suddenly, the Chinese Threat to Australia Seems Very Real,” New York Times, Nov. 28, 2019; and Clive Hamilton and Alex Joske, Submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security: Inquiry into the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017, Parliament of Australia, 2018, pp. 6-8.
 See, Hugh White, How to Defend Australia (Carlton, VIC: La Trobe University Press, 2019).