When it comes to Australia, China is not even pretending that it is not on the path of retribution. After extraordinary obstruction to Australian imports amounting to effective bans on goods ranging from lobster to iron ore to wheat and threatening about $20 billion dollars of exports, Beijing issued a blunt diktat to Canberra on November 18 in terms of what it must address to arrest the momentous downturn in Australia-China relations.
In a dossier “leaked” to several Australian media outlets including The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), China listed 14 disputes, accusing the Australian government of “poisoning bilateral relations.” As if this was not brazen enough, a Chinese government official told a reporter in Canberra: “China is angry. If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy,” the SMH reports.
In the run up to the dossier’s release, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian noted “The Australian side should reflect on this [the state of Australia-China relations] seriously, rather than shirking the blame and deflecting responsibility,” the SMH reports.
This latest bout in China’s infamous “wolf warrior diplomacy” comes amid Australian push back against Chinese interference and influence operations, beginning with new laws issued in 2018. Canberra’s April call for an investigation into the origin of the novel coronavirus, its ban on Chinese 5G infrastructure, as well as its increasingly visible and rejuvenated military partnerships with like-minded powers in the Indo-Pacific have all irked Beijing. China has long been accustomed to the idea that its large trading partners would necessarily toe its line politically – or at least, not push back or otherwise upset the apple cart.
Australia and Japan finalized a landmark defense treaty on November 17, as navies of both countries commenced the second phase of the Malabar exercise with their U.S. and Indian counterparts, in the Arabian Sea, that day.
What is interesting about the dossier the Chinese government presented is how it unintentionally reveals Beijing’s insecurities and anxieties.
In particular, China has taken umbrage at the increasingly probing research of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, around the country’s treatment of ethnic minorities and its covert activities abroad. As I have noted in these pages before, Australian civil society, including the media, has taken a frontline role in highlighting the Chinese Communist Party’s malign behavior both at home and abroad. Therefore, another of the charges against Australia the dossier lays out is “unfriendly or antagonistic report[s] on China by media, poisoning the atmosphere of bilateral relations” is unsurprising.
It is plausible that by making these grievances public through what amounts to a diplomatic non-paper, China hopes that the Australian public, and exporters feeling the pinch from China’s trade restrictions in particular, will pressure the Morrison government to change course on its China policy. But on the face of it, that sounds unlikely. As Trade Minister Simon Birmingham told the SMH, “The ball is very much in China’s court to be willing to sit down and have that proper dialogue.”
At the same time, one cannot rule out the possibility that the ham-handed decision to release the dossier was taken without much forethought, and that it would backfire on China spectacularly. After all, there is recent precedence for such kind of behavior from China’s wolf warriors.