Australia’s relationship with China has seen better days.
The tensions between the nations made headlines again this week following the arrest of Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who has spent the past two weeks detained in China without charge.
The arrest is the latest in a string of incidents between Australia and China, with the once amicable relationship continuing to show signs of strain.
This week, Huawei also announced it was pulling its sponsorship for NRL team Canberra Raiders and Beijing launched an investigation into subsidies in Australia’s wine export industry, just a fortnight after initiating a separate anti-dumping investigation on wine.
It comes after China placed tariffs on Australian barley and suspended exports on beef in May.
The arrest of Cheng Lei
The detention of Ms Cheng, a television anchor for state-media CGTN, is a complicating factor affecting the delicate Australia-Sino relations.
Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said the detention and timing of the event could be interpreted as “Beijing’s willingness to use its political control”.
“The fact that such a high-profile person, who was previously trusted to work for Chinese state media in a prominent role, has been detained at this time is hard to read as not being a symbolic further step in Beijing’s coercion of the Australian Government,” he said.
Earlier this year, Chinese authorities also indicted Sydney writer and democracy activist Yang Hengjun for espionage, prompting Foreign Minister Marise Payne to criticise Beijing for failing to inform Canberra.
Dr Yang was formally charged over an ill-defined espionage allegation and has been detained in China since last year.
Huawei pulling sponsorship for Canberra Raiders
On Monday, Chinese telco giant Huawei also announced it would be ending its sponsorship of NRL team Canberra Raiders over the Federal Government’s 2018 5G ban.
Huawei Australia has been the Raiders’ major sponsor for a decade, and last year signed a new deal which was set to run until the end of the 2021 season.
The company said it was badly hurt by the Turnbull government’s decision to ban it from Australia’s 5G network rollout based on national security grounds.
“The reality is we have gone from 1,000 staff, next year we will be 100 staff. The impact of the 5G ban and the greater China–Australia relationship has had a huge flow-on effect,” Huawei Australia’s Jeremy Mitchell said.
Clive Hamilton, co-author of a book about global Chinese influence operations, believed the Raiders sponsorship was “an attempt by Huawei to gain political influence and legitimacy”.
“And it’s become clear in recent months that there is no possibility that the Federal Government will reverse its decision to ban Huawei.”
However, his views were not echoed by Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) Fergus Hanson, who did not believe the sponsorship was meaningful enough to be able to convince Canberra into changing its policy.
“Marking up the wine industry, the barley farmers or the tourism sector [is] more likely to have an impact on the Australian policymakers’ decision-making processes,” he told the ABC.
Wine, barley and beef
In a further blow, China announced it would launch an investigation into subsidies in Australia’s wine export industry, just a fortnight after launching a separate anti-dumping investigation.
Australia has denied claims that government programs aimed at bolstering the wine industry count as subsidies for exporters.
Last year, Australian wine exports to China were valued at $1.25 billion, worth more than a third of the entire Australian wine export market.
The investigations are Beijing’s latest swipes at Australian exports to China, with beef and barley exports already facing trade restrictions.
In May, China’s Commerce Ministry announced a significant tariff on Australian barley at the conclusion of a one-year anti-dumping investigation.
Days later it also suspended exports from four Australian abattoirs selling beef to China for not meeting labelling requirements.
Mr Hanson said these were examples of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) employing their “coercive diplomacy” strategy to try and change state and company behaviours.
“I think what’s really unique about the Chinese Communist Party’s approach here is that they do not make the threats explicit, so they don’t draw the causal link between the action that’s offended them,” he said.
Mr Hanson said other examples include China issuing a travel warning for Australia, citing “racist incidents against Asians”, and the sudden announcement of Karm Gilespie’s death sentence after being arrested for drug trafficking in 2013.
Australia ‘hurt the feelings’ of China over COVID-19 investigations
A senior Chinese diplomat, Wang Xining, last week accused the Australian Government of damaging the relationship between the two countries in a rare address to the National Press Club in Canberra.
Back in April, Senator Payne called for a global inquiry into China’s handling of the outbreak, independent of the World Health Organization.
In doing so, Mr Wang, the deputy head of mission at China’s embassy, said Australia had “hurt the feelings” of China.
He also said Canberra never consulted Beijing before making the decision and that its push for an inquiry must have been at the behest of the United States.
Chinese ambassador Jingye Cheng had earlier suggested the Chinese public may boycott Australian products or decide not to visit Australia if the Federal Government continued its push for an independent inquiry.
Bec Strating, an Asian security expert at La Trobe University, said Australia’s unilateral call for an inquiry was “one aspect of the relationship that Beijing didn’t respond all that well to”.
“These are the sorts of economic coercion tactics, that in essence, attempt to compel or encourage Australia to toe the line on China,” she said.
Looking ahead: ‘Australia will need to keep pushing back’
The Coalition is pushing to introduce a new bill which could regulate all agreements between governments, local councils, public universities and foreign nations.
Under the foreign relations bill, the Foreign Minister could terminate any existing agreements if they are considered to go against Australia’s national interest.
The proposed new powers are likely to tear up Victoria’s 2019 Belt and Road deal, as well as Western Australia’s 2011 agreement aimed at enhancing China’s involvement in the state’s economy.
Last month, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg also canned a huge dairy purchase, Mengniu Dairy’s $600 million takeover of the Dairy Farmers and Pura brands owned by Japanese giant Kirin.
As China begins to import Argentinian barley, and seek once-prized Australian exports elsewhere, one Australian commodity remains unimpeded — iron ore.
Although it is yet to be seen where the frosty relationship will take us, one thing is for certain — that it will become harder for Australia to manage China’s rise.
“What we’re seeing is a resurgence of a rise of harder line rhetoric in Australia about China,” Dr Strating said.
“Domestically, there are rising concerns about foreign interference in Australia.
“There are also concerns about human rights issues in Xinjiang, Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong, its increasing pressure on South-East Asian states in the South China Sea.