Is China provoking a diplomatic fight with Australia?

·7-min read

China has recently stepped up its aggression towards Australia, from introducing new customs taxes to trolling on Twitter. Relations between the two countries have rarely been so bad and, according to regional experts, the world should be paying attention to the way Beijing is treating Canberra.

When Zhao Lijian, China's foreign ministry spokesperson, posted a photo on Twitter from an official government account on November 30, Australia was aghast. The picture appears to show a grinning Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to the throat of an Afghan child who is holding a lamb.

Zhao posted the image accompanied by a tweet saying he was “shocked by the murder of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian soldiers”.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reacted immediately, demanding an apology from the Chinese government. Morrison also demanded that Twitter remove the image.

But Twitter refused to delete the tweet, instead releasing a statement saying that Zhao’s account was labelled an official government account – which it said provided the public with enough context to “inform their interpretation of its intent”.

“For world leaders, politicians, and official government accounts, direct interactions with fellow public figures, comments on political issues of the day, or foreign policy sabre-rattling on economic or military issues are generally not in violation of the Twitter Rules,” the statement said.

Twitter also said the image had been marked as “sensitive media”. But as of 3pm CET on Tuesday, the tweet – which is pinned to the top of Zhao’s account – had no such notification.

Morrison said the image had been doctored and said it was “utterly outrageous” and “deeply offensive for every Australian”.

“It cannot be justified on any basis whatsoever. The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes,” Morrison told a news conference on Monday afternoon.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern offered her support to Australia on Tuesday, saying the image warranted her government making its own protest to China.

New Zealand has registered directly with Chinese authorities our concern over the use of that image,” Arden told reporters in Wellington on Tuesday. “It was an un-factual post and, of course, that would concern us so that is something we’ve raised directly,” she said.

"While that is an exchange that’s happening between Australia and China, it will of course tip into spaces where as a general principle we may have concerns and will raise those," she continued. "In this case an image has been used that is not factually correct. It’s not a genuine image so we have raised that directly with Chinese authorities.”

Relations 'have never been as bad'

This latest provocation from Zhao, one of a number of Chinese diplomats known for making dramatic declarations, "represents the most offensive statement that can be made at the moment for Canberra because it touches a very sensitive point in Australia", said John Lee, an analyst at Merics (Mercator Institute for China Studies), who spoke to FRANCE 24. This tweet is connected to a damning investigation by Australian military's own inspector general issued on November 19 that concluded elite special forces had "unlawfully killed" at least 39 civilians and Afghan prisoners.

But what does that atrocity have to do with China? Nothing, it would seem, apart from giving fresh ammunition to Zhao to exacerbate increasingly conflicted Sino-Australian relations.

"They have never been as bad as they are now," said Heribert Dieter, a specialist on Australia and geopolitical issues at the German Institute for International Affairs, speaking with FRANCE 24.

This current escalation kicked off early in 2020, when Australia was the first country to call for an independent investigation to determine the origin of the coronavirus epidemic. "This offended Beijing all the more since Australia first made it through the media, apparently without going through the usual diplomatic channels," said Lee.

Since then China has repeatedly imposed customs taxes on Australian exports, targeting barley, wine, beef and seafood. In November, the Chinese embassy issued a detailed dossier of 14 complaints against Australia following their extended diplomatic dispute over trade.

China criticises what it describes as Australian government subsidies to "anti-Chinese" research projects, Canberra's condemnation of Chinese policy in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and the Australian authorities' veto of a dozen Chinese investment projects in Australia.

"China is angry. If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy," a Chinese government official is quoted as saying at a briefing with a Sydney Morning Herald reporter in Canberra on November 18.

Culmination of four years of tension

This new series of diplomatic-commercial tensions is the culmination of nearly four years of progressive deterioration in relations between the two countries.

"In 2016, the controversy in Australia over the granting of a 99-year lease to a Chinese company to manage Darwin Port (which is close to a US military base) was one of the first signs of future problems between the two countries," said Lee.

Ever since, Australia has often been among the first to denounce Chinese actions in a number of different areas.

"They banned Huawei from developing its 5G network in Australia as early as 2018, they were the first to label Chinese actions in the China Sea as illegal and then they put early pressure for an independent investigation into the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic," said Patrick Köllner, vice-president of the GIGA Institute for Asian Studies (German Institute for Global and Regional Studies), speaking with FRANCE 24.

Added to this, there was "a very blatant good-versus-evil way of representing the Chinese threat by Australia’s Murdoch media empire", he continued.

Australia was "the first major country to adapt its diplomacy to the new way in which Xi Jinping's China approaches international relations", said Köllner. Canberra saw Beijing become more aggressive on the international stage, felt threatened and bared its own claws.

Australia also became the first major nation to pay the price. But it has also become collateral damage in the power struggle between China and the United States.

"In the context of this rivalry, the pressure exerted by Beijing can also be seen as a way of trying to influence the decisions of one of Washington's main allies in the region," said Lee.

Paris or Berlin next?

For Australia, China's attitude towards them must be challenged by the rest of the world. "The rapid deterioration in the relationship between Beijing and Canberra is much more than a bilateral affair,” said the Financial Times in a November 26 editorial. For the British financial daily, "all democratic countries should watch this conflict closely and be prepared to support each other in pushing back against Chinese pressure”.

"The idea is that China are using Australia as an example. They could be using Australia to send a signal to other countries who might be tempted to criticise Beijing," said Köllner.

"We should not delude ourselves. After Canberra, Beijing could take on Berlin or Paris," agreed Dieter. He said this offensive against Australia illustrated "for the first time how Beijing is trying to control the way people talk about China in large developed countries".

It seems highly likely that the famous 14-point list included strong criticism of the Australian media coverage of Chinese news. “Unable to tolerate free speech at home, Beijing now appears intent on controlling speech overseas as well," wrote the Financial Times.

But it is important to recognise that Australia is not France or Germany. "It is a country that is specifically vulnerable to Chinese pressure," said Lee. More than 40 percent of Australia's exports go to China. "Australia does not have many alternative markets for some of its products," he said.

Other nations, particularly European countries, are less dependent on trade from the Asian superpower. But all the specialists questioned by FRANCE 24 agree that Australia's recent experiences must be of international concern.

For Köllner, Australia’s trade conflict with China has clearly highlighted the stark choices world leaders face: "Either we want to continue to benefit economically from trade with China at the risk of having to silence critics and free speech, or we must start to find alternatives."

This article has been translated from the original in French.