Australia faces down China in high-stakes strategic shift


by Kirsty Needham, Reuters

via The Japan Times - Sep 8, 2020


CANBERRA – Australia is standing up to China. Watch closely: It may be a harbinger of things to come, as the world’s smaller countries respond to the increasingly coercive Asian economic superpower.


For years, the Australian political and business establishment had a paramount goal: protect and expand this natural resource powerhouse’s booming exports to fast-growing China. Iron ore, coal, natural gas, wine and more: Until COVID-19 struck, Australia had a 29-year run without a single recession as it sent its signature goods to the world’s voracious No. 2 economy. Canberra’s diplomacy came to focus on balancing the Chinese trade relationship with the nation’s equally important defense alliance with the United States.


But the paradigm through which the government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison now views China has shifted dramatically, people inside his government told Reuters. The relationship is no longer shaped just by trade, but by a stark view emerging widely inside this continent-spanning country — that Beijing poses a threat to Australia’s democracy and national sovereignty.


Discussions about China inside Morrison’s Cabinet now revolve around the need to preserve sovereignty and fend off Chinese efforts to sway Australian politics, two government sources said.


Recent steps taken by the prime minister appear to reflect this thinking. He has warned the Australian public about a significant increase in cyberattacks, introduced a national security test for foreign investments, and announced a dramatic jump in defense spending focused on the Indo-Pacific region. Morrison didn’t name China when announcing these moves, but government officials said they came in response to Beijing’s actions.


Australia has also voiced concerns in recent weeks about what it sees as Chinese disinformation campaigns that seek to undermine democracies; suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong over China’s imposition of a draconian security law in the city; and filed a declaration with the United Nations rejecting China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.


Of all the actions taken by Australia in recent months, though, it’s the government’s lobbying of world leaders in April for an inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic that has most enraged Beijing. The world lined up behind the move, with 137 nations co-sponsoring a resolution at the World Health Assembly for an investigation into the pandemic, which first emerged in Wuhan. Beijing also ultimately backed the resolution. An independent panel, headed by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, will deliver an interim report in November...


... In August, a Chinese diplomat drew on Roman history to blast Canberra, comparing Australia’s call for an inquiry to the betrayal of Julius Caesar by the assassin Brutus.


China’s Foreign Ministry said Beijing had never interfered in Australia or used coercion against it. Responding to questions from Reuters, the ministry also called on Australia to “abandon the Cold War mentality,” do more to “enhance mutual trust” and not “provoke trouble on issues involving China’s core interests.” A stable relationship, it said, was in the interests of both countries.


Reuters spoke to 19 current and former Australian government officials and two former prime ministers in examining how relations with China have deteriorated. They provided the first comprehensive account of how the government came to adopt its view that Australia must “speak up,” as several ministers have said, about Beijing’s actions.


This shift in Australia’s position on China began in 2017, the interviews show, before the sharp deterioration in relations between Beijing and Washington, which threatens to trigger a new Cold War. The change has been led in part by a coterie of Australian officials, some with security and intelligence backgrounds, who hold deeply skeptical views of the Chinese leadership and its global ambitions.


In one sign of the times, a bipartisan group of anti-China hawks has formed in the Australian parliament, who dub themselves “the Wolverines.”


Asked about this shift, Morrison couched his moves with diplomatic care. In a written response to questions from Reuters, he said his government’s approach to China has been consistent...


Soured sentiment ...


Era of win-win ...


Rise of China hawks ...


‘An awakening’ ...