“Downright despicable”, “petty tricks”, “menacing”, “irrational”.
The language of the diplomats and parliamentarians has been anything but diplomatic, and far from parliamentary. The robust conversations usually kept behind closed doors have tumbled into the public square, leaked to broadcasters and splashed in newsprint.
Australia and China’s fractious relationship scrapped its way to an unedifying new low this week, with a degenerating dispute emerging, ostensibly, from Australia’s call for an international, independent inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic that has so far killed more than 230,000 people.
But China and Australia view this inquiry – amorphous though the proposal still is – as entirely different entities.
China sees Australia as frontrunning – yet again in Beijing’s eyes – on an issue deliberately constructed to isolate, condemn and humiliate China. It contends the inquiry is a political witch-hunt, engineered by Washington.
From Australia’s perspective, the Chinese response appears a dramatic overreaction to an entirely legitimate international concern to understand the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak. The response appears, to Canberra, like an attempt to deflect responsibility, or worse, to shift blame elsewhere.
Relations were already deeply damaged, scarred by a succession of antagonisms that the two countries seem to find easy to accumulate, but far harder to shake: the decision of Australia to exclude Huawei from the 5G network rollout; China’s continued incarceration of Australian pro-democracy writer Yang Hengjun; a dispute over the South China Sea; concerns over Chinese influence in Australian business, economics and politics; continuing allegations of espionage.
This week, the fracas was focused on the Covid-19 investigation, but that fight carried all the baggage of those gone before, and still being waged. It escalated to a thinly veiled threat from China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, who told a newspaper – admittedly under some leading questioning – that Australia’s push for an inquiry was “dangerous”, politically motivated at the urging of the Trump administration, and would harm Australia’s national interest.
“The Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what you are doing now … if the mood is going from bad to worse, people would think why we should 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. So it’s up to the public, the people to decide. And also, maybe the ordinary people will think why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef?”
The ambassador later said in the interview he hoped there would not be a boycott, and that he was not seeking to “imply” anything through his comments.
But the Australian government was swift in its response, condemning what it saw as the threat of “economic coercion” through a consumer boycott.
And while neither of those terms were used by the ambassador, within the corridors of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ RG Casey Building, the intent of the ambassador’s comments was considered unmistakable: Beijing was seeking to paint Australia as vulnerable because of an economic dependence on China.
The foreign minister, Marise Payne, called out the Chinese statement for the threat Australia perceived it as: “We reject any suggestion that economic coercion is an appropriate response to a call for such an assessment, when what we need is global cooperation.”
The spat degenerated further with the leaking of details of a subsequent phone call between Cheng and the Dfat secretary, Frances Adamson: fanned by freelancing commentary from Australian politicians, and thundering denouncements in the CCP mouthpiece the Global Times.
But there is important broader context.
China feels under extreme pressure to defend its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak – less its suppression of the virus, albeit using repressive measures far more draconian than any liberal democracy might consider – but rather against accusations it initially misled the world about the seriousness of the virus, costing the global community precious weeks to prepare its response.
China is anxious for the world to read the end of its Covid-19 story: it doesn’t want anyone turning back to the start of the book.
Australia is not the only country that has been castigated, condemned and threatened for demanding accountability from Beijing.
China has excoriated the US for blaming it for the outbreak, even releasing a bizarre cartoon Lego propaganda video through its Xinhua news agency, called “Once Upon a Virus” and set to the tune of The Entertainer.
China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, has launched a sustained attack on the “malevolence” of the French media, calling them lapdogs of the US. He said Le Figaro trafficked in “lies” and said western politicians excited and legitimised “the populist, racist and anti-Chinese strands of their countries against China”.
Lu wrote that critics of China were “psychologically fragile”.
“Some Westerners are starting to have no confidence in liberal democracy.”
The Chinese embassy in the Netherlands called the De Volkskrant newspaper “full of prejudice, discrimination and malice”.
And the Global Times threatened “China may consider suspending medical supplies to the Netherlands” after it simplified the name of its mission in Taiwan to the Netherlands Office Taipei (dropping the words “trade and investment”) – an apparent affront to the one-China principle.
It is the case that Australia’s trading relationship with China is hugely significant. China is Australia’s largest two-way trading partner in goods and services, representing more than a quarter of all international trade.
Two-way trade reached $235bn in 2018-19, the highest ever amount, up 20% year on year.
And it is not inconceivable that particular sectors – such as food exports like beef, seafood and dairy, collectively worth more than $12bn – could be exposed if relations deteriorate further.
But Australia’s relationship with China is not so one-way that China would escape a boycott unharmed.
A 2017 report by the ANU’s national security college, edited by the former diplomat and intelligence analyst Prof Rory Medcalf, argued perceptions of Australia’s dependence on China, and vulnerability to Chinese economic pressure, were exaggerated.
“The nature of our economic relationship means that there are limits to the pressure China can apply without imposing sizeable costs on itself.
“Pressure that would have the biggest impact on our economy – such as threatening to restrict the iron ore trade – would likely be a ‘one shot’ option for Beijing, doing serious harm to that link thereafter. After all, Chinese attempts at economic coercion against other countries have often backfired in the long run.”
Prof James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, told the Guardian he believed the current dispute would stay “confined to the diplomatic realm”, and would not spill over to the economic side of the China-Australia relationship, which benefits both countries.
“When it comes to resources, China has few other options apart from Australia: when it comes to tourism and education, it’s not like the government has a direct lever it can pull. It can seek to influence Chinese public opinion but Chinese households get their information from multiple sources. They are not all just reading Xinhua or the People’s Daily.”
Laurenceson said Australia’s position as a preferred destination for Chinese students would likely be more affected by racially motivated anti-Chinese acts – such as the assault on two Chinese students in Melbourne, apparently linked to Covid-19 – than by disagreements between ambassadors and ministers.
Laurenceson said from Beijing’s perspective, Australia leading calls for an international Covid-19 inquiry was another example of the country “frontrunning” an anti-China agenda, as it was perceived to have done when it was the first country to ban Huawei from its 5G network rollout.
“China has developed an impression that Australia is leading the charge internationally against them. So the response to calls for an international inquiry might come across here as an overly sensitive reaction, but for China, this is yet another example of this pattern of behaviour.”
Some have accused Australia of acting with little diplomatic tact.
Dr Stephen FitzGerald, Australia’s first ambassador to China, posted by Gough Whitlam to Beijing in 1973, said Australia’s demand for an international inquiry was clumsy, and “seems to be for no other reason than to do a kind of ‘gotcha’ on China”.
Speaking at the Australia Institute this week, FitzGerald said a more collegiate approach to working with Beijing might have yielded greater results.
“Whether China was right or wrong in the beginning – and all the evidence suggests it was wrong – the thing to say is ‘let’s sit down together and work it out’. There is no one in the government in Canberra who can pick up the phone and talk to someone at the most senior level in Beijing, and if you think about it, that’s a serious condition for us to be in.”
The executive director of the Lowy Institute, Dr Michael Fullilove, said the Australian government was right to pursue an independent inquiry: “That is entirely reasonable. I do think China owes the world an explanation. The world does need to learn the lessons of Covid-19 so another pandemic can be avoided.”
But Fullilove said a de-escalation in the current tension would benefit both countries.
“Both countries have a stake in the relationship. It’s bad for China’s reputation to be seen as a bully.
“And I do think it’s important to note that Chinese diplomats are behaving similarly in a number of countries. It’s not just in Australia. Why this is happening is because China knows if they get painted with allowing Covid-19 to spread to the world, it will do significant damage to their soft power.”