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Disturbing the Peace: Deteriorating Sino-Australian Relations in the Asian Century

Australia’s desire to exhibit international leadership has run counter to Sino-Australian peace. In April 2020 Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison led the calls for a World Health Organization investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in China, prompting a freeze on diplomatic relations which has endured throughout 2020 into 2021.

If you were to drive from Sydney to Canberra, you would pass a sign welcoming you to Australia’s capital city. The sign lists Beijing, China as one of Canberra’s sister cities, a status that has been maintained since 2000 when China was only the sixth largest economy in the world. As competition between the US and China intensifies and Australia is caught in the middle, the country has to decide where its allegiance lies, and Sino-Australian relations have quickly worsened. 

Australia’s relationship with China for the last two decades has been increasingly positive, benefitting from complementary trade markets. Chinese international students make up an astonishing 33 percent of students in Australian universities, and are the second largest migrant population in Australia, following the United Kingdom. Furthermore, China has been Australia’s largest trade partner since 2007, with Australia owing much of its economic prosperity to its trade relations with China. 

However, Australia’s desire to exhibit international leadership has run counter to Sino-Australian peace. In April 2020 Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison led the calls for a World Health Organization investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in China, prompting a freeze on diplomatic relations which has endured throughout 2020 into 2021. Chinese-Australian bilateral relations have plummeted further in the final months of 2020, with the Chinese government placing tariffs on key Australian exports, issuing a list of fourteen grievances to the Australian government, and allowing a state official to tweet a controversial and internationally condemned message.

The tweet, posted by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, features a doctored cartoon of an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s throat with the caption, “Don’t be afraid, we come in peace!” It comes in response to the Australian Defense Force’s Afghanistan Inquiry, which found that more than two dozen elite Australian soldiers were likely involved in the killing of thirty-nine Afghan prisoners and civilians between 2005 and 2016. The report is publicly available, although heavily redacted due to ongoing legal procedures. 

The investigation was conducted by Major General Paul Brereton, who serves as a judge at the New South Wales Court of Appeal, and is now commonly known at the “Brereton Report.” After being presented with Brereton’s findings, Chief of Defense Force General Angus Campbell accepted all suggestions made in the report, which include charging the soldiers suspected of war crimes, stripping them of awards received in Afghanistan, and comprehensively reforming the special forces structure and surrounding hierarchies. 

General Campbell has also announced plans to eliminate the elite unit involved. Eliminating a unit of the Special Air Service Regiment is similar to eliminating a Navy SEAL team in the US Marine Corps. These teams are highly trained special operations forces, such as SEAL Team 6, who were responsible for the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011. 

Notably, Australia was the first of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan to punish soldiers for suspected war crimes. Tensions over the transparency of the investigation reached a boiling point in 2019, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) was raided by the Australian Federal Police over the possession of and reporting on the “Afghan Files.” The general’s choice to accept the report’s suggestions, admit to the soldiers’ wrongdoing, and proceed with reformative action is an unusually transparent move for Australia’s defense force.

Mr. Zhao’s tweet was criticized by Australia’s Western partners, including the US, New Zealand, the UK, and the European Union. Mr. Morrison himself dubbed the tweet “repugnant” and “outrageous,” and has called for an apology from the Chinese Communist Party. However, China insists it is Australia’s responsibility to first address fourteen grievances. These grievances include Australia’s condemnation of the CCP’s actions in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, critical reporting by Australian media and think-tanks, intervening in the South China Sea dispute, and siding with the U.S. in its “anti-China campaign.” Despite this bold list, Australian Members of Parliament across the political spectrum consider the issues posed by the CCP to be non-negotiable matters of Australian national interest.

Mr. Zhao made it clear he believes the war crime investigation is yet another example of Western liberal hypocrisy. His claims are not unfounded. The xenophobic White Australia Policy, specifically designed to prevent Asian immigration to Australia, existed from 1901 until 1966, and anti-discrimination law didn’t come into effect until 1973. Today, Australia has a poor track-record for its treatment of asylum seekers and the indigenous Australian population.

In defense of the tweet, CCP officials cited freedom of expression, claiming the cartoon is satire, and that Westerners have produced offensive and upsetting cartoons aimed at China in the past. “Why can’t they accept it when the Chinese Foreign Ministry follows up with criticism?” 

The difference is plain: Western satirical cartoons criticizing the CCP are distributed by private citizens or the independent media. Although the image was created by a Chinese artist, in reposting it, the Chinese Foreign Ministry promotes its message, inflaming tensions over social media rather than using diplomatic channels.

Those in glass houses should not throw stones. China is currently under scrutiny for human rights transgressions in Tibet and Xinjiang for persecuting the Uyghurs, is combatting reports that Chinese vessels have been sinking Vietnamese fishing boats in the South China Sea, continues to suppress information about the Tiananmen Square massacre, and recently implemented security measures in Hong Kong designed to criminalize political opposition and dissent.

These bilateral tensions have manifested concurrently with a historic event. On November 15, 2020, fifteen countries (including Australia and China) signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – the largest free trade agreement in history. RCEP encompasses 30 per cent of the world’s population and economy. 

Australia is in a difficult but common position, caught between its largest trade partner, China, and its closest military and ideological ally, the US. America and Australia share very close cultural and military ties, including the rotational presence of US Marines in northern Australia and the Five Eyes agreement, both of which are representative of deep bilateral trust.

On the other hand, China and Australia have decided to turn a blind eye to moral clashes for years in order to mutually benefit from their complementary economies. However, China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific makes neutrality increasingly difficult for Australia. When forced to choose between appeasing China for economic benefit, or defending democracy and liberalism with the U.S. — which it has spent close to a century doing — Australia has predictably sided with its long-time ally. 

However, an increasingly complex world, an America with its own problems to manage, and an assertive China in the Indo-Pacific leaves Australia largely isolated from their strongest allies. Increased cooperation with India and Japan are options for regional balancing against Chinese dominance; but each of these countries also rely on Chinese trade and are playing a careful balancing game.

As a middle power, Australia’s greatest influence is not economic nor militaristic, it is how it helps to shape norms in its region and the broader international order through international partnerships and organizations. China’s blatant disregard for soft power and the normative, rules-based order, as well as its unwillingness to decelerate worsening bilateral relations with Australia, are indicative of intensifying great power competition. Neither China nor the U.S. are willing to give much ground. There have long been murmurs about the need for Australia to make a choice between the U.S. and China, and judging by its fourteen grievances, China believes Australia has already sided decisively with the U.S. 

While the Australian Government insists the ideal outcome is a stable and mutually beneficial economic relationship with China, its unwillingness to concede to China’s demands and its enduring support for U.S. international leadership have indicated that Australia is digging in its heels. A concerted hegemonic contest is highly likely and fast approaching, and Australia is learning what it is like to be stripped of its neutral status. The theatre of contest in the twenty-first century is the Indo-Pacific, and Australia is now an actor in China’s international game, whether it likes it or not. Sisters fight, that much is universally acknowledged, but as the world order shifts and both Beijing and Canberra continue to say things that are difficult to take back, there may be one less name on the “Welcome to Canberra” sign.





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By Sarah Knight

Sarah Knight is a fourth year undergraduate student of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her interests include international security, geopolitics and strategy, and ethnic conflict.

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