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Sino-Australian Relations: Evolving Tensions

Sydney Opera House © Stanbalik / Public Domain / Pixabay

On the 30th of November, Zhao Lijiang, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, inflamed Twitter. The subject of the controversy was a photo of an Australian soldier portrayed in the act of cutting the throat of an Afghan boy (Moore, 2020). Even if the photo was later declared as fake, the reference to the real military brutalities committed by Australia in Afghanistan was evident. The Australian response was not long in coming, as the prime minister himself mobilized by organizing a press conference expressing visible disappointment with respect to what happened, and asking for a formal apology. The Chinese counterpart, however, did not seem willing to withdraw from the position taken and even found the idea of ​​a possible public apology quite ironic. Hua Chunying, spokesperson of China and director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Information Department, later wrote "#Afghanlivesmatter"; the choice therefore seemed to be maintaining the same rhetorical line.

In just a few hours, China-Australia relations slid into dangerous political tensions. Clearly, the tweet and the subsequent heavy Australian reaction are just yet another symptom of a much more widespread illness that has afflicted relations between the two states for some time now, and which is interesting to understand thoroughly.

China-Australia: Building Ties

Australia and China have a long history of mutual engagement. Since the beginning of the early 20th century, there has been a high number of Chinese immigrants moving to Australia. This migration led to the promulgation of a very strict immigration policy, which remained in force until the 1970s, when the flow of the Asian population into the country was formally resumed (even if in this case we are talking of “skilled migration”). The Chinese presence on Australian soil has therefore already been prominent for a long time and is very heterogeneous in its nature.

In reality, referring to a more recent picture of events, the analysis of the relationship between these two countries in our decade has so far been much more focused on the economic and geopolitical, rather than the human aspect. The two countries have long been regarded as major trading partners, boasting extensive and solid relationships, but there have nevertheless been some episodes of conflict over time. The People's Republic in the early 10's counted among Australia’s largest trading partners in terms of both imports and exports (Holmes, 2013). The signing of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement – or ChAFTA – in 2015 (which followed a formal visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping the previous year, in which bilateral relations between the two countries were for the first time described using the term "comprehensive strategic partnership" (Australian Government, 2015)) is both an example and an evidence of the profitable relationships created; its implementation ensured that 95 percent of Australian exports to China were to be tariff free (Australian Government, 2015). In 2017, the Asian giant appeared as the first and main target of Australian exports (while the same degree of commercial dependence cannot be counted in the opposite case).

(Source: The Economist)

An Economist article from November 14, 2020, also provides us with a more specific picture of Australian export goods to China and of the trade dependence between the two countries (updated to 2019):

(Source: The Economist)

Unfolding the Fragmentation between China and Australia

These are the bases on which the subsequent economic-political disputes between the two countries opened. Two episodes, both happened in 2018, are indicated as main (but not exclusive) reasons behind the fracture that was originated afterwards. Firstly, Australia passed a new foreign interference legislation. The act in itself is quite neutral, meaning it does not explicitly refer to one specific country. However, in reality, the reference to China is quite evident. Indeed, the act was approved right after some worrying episodes of Chinese involvement in Australian politics (interference in mayor elections and bribes to Australian politicians). Around the same time, Malcom Turnbull – the Australian prime minister at the time – barred Huawei from Australian 5G network. The reason for this, in his own words, was “hedging against future risks'' as “the company or entity that provides, maintains and has constant access to it (referring to 5G network) has the capability, if it chose to do so, to act adversely to your interest” (Choudhury, 2019).

Against this background, we can now take a look at the events of the current year. Indeed, 2020 saw a dramatic rupture of the balance between Australia and the People's Republic. The first element to take into consideration is certainly the Covid-19 pandemic. In the heart of the first wave, and in parallel with the growing world media speculations on the origins of the virus, the Australian government pronounced itself on the subject: Australia wanted to have independent investigations on the origins of Covid-19. This declaration carried great weight in the worsening of bilateral relationships with the PRC. In fact, while independent investigations have also been requested by other countries in the European context, the substantial difference in the Australian case is the push to request the establishment of a new inquiring body (untethered from the WHO) with stronger inspection power, in order to monitor disease outbreaks (Probyn, 2020).

The Chinese answer came shortly after, when the country’s ambassador warned the Australian government about the possible negative impact that the tensions generated could have on trade with China. Further political tensions were also raised by the detention of the Australian anchorwoman Cheng Lei in China (Mao, 2020), as well as by other similar episodes of threats targeting Australian journalists by the Chinese government (BBC News, 2020; CNBC, 2020).

It was however necessary to wait until September to witness the actual Chinese offensive: after an initial ban on imports of barley, other Australian key export goods such as meat, coal, and wine followed quickly. This kind of attitude is somewhat indicative of the Chinese foreign policy technique of using the economy to leverage foreign governments. The basic idea is that a country interested in doing business with the PRC should refrain from asserting their agenda on the party’s work, or they will suffer the penalty of heavy commercial retaliation. The Australian offenses against the People's Republic are numerous and explicit, to the extent that the government collects them in a list of 14 "grievances" (Niewenhuis, 2020), and has responded by implementing the so-called “wolf-warrior diplomacy” (Dettmer, 2020).

Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy

It is necessary to understand what the reasons behind such a strict approach towards foreign relations are. China has always portrayed itself as a proactive and dignified actor in the global scenario, making it clear its aim was not to rule it, but to reshape the status quo of a US-led international system (Palanisami, 2020). Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, China began to take a more aggressive stance towards foreign countries, stating the need to protect and pursue its national interests, which have for a long time been neglected due to the Century of Humiliation (Berkofsky, 2020). As a consequence, Xi encouraged Chinese officials and diplomats to break up with Deng Xiaoping’s thought of “hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead”, to promote a more aggressive political rhetoric and “fighting spirit” (Ma, 2020). Hence, in 2019, wolf-warrior diplomacy techniques were implemented when speaking and acting on behalf of the country. The name is a reference to a famous Chinese movie, 戰狼 Wolf Warrior, where a Chinese soldier defeats foreign enemies and stands up for his own country (Ma, 2020). It is a clear representation of what China is doing nowadays, and of how it presents itself in the international scenario: the country needs to overcome adversities, stand up for itself and represent the nationalist interests of Chinese citizens, both abroad and in the mainland (Dingding, Junyang, 2020). From China’s perspective, wolf-warrior diplomacy is a direct response to “unfair” approaches by other countries, especially the U.S, towards China and the Chinese people, and therefore in need of an active policy based upon a rhetoric of enemies and threat perception (Zhu, 2020). But still, it is necessary to answer the question of why China changed its approach from passive to assertive. Simply put, China became a potential status quo-altering force, especially in the last two decades, via a steep growth of its economy, which brought China into the public eye (Zhu, 2020). Thus, acting based on wolf-warrior techniques allows China to keep up with its narrative and divert from any risk of humiliation or allegation towards Beijing. China needs, and wants, to be more proactive and more direct in achieving its core national goals at global level, and to do so is to weaken foreign adversaries (Ma, 2020).

Nevertheless, while it might be true that wolf-warrior diplomats are seen as heroes by part of the population, it is also true that some in the country consider this approach to be self-destructive, as it is believed it will isolate China instead of helping it build strong ties with global superpowers, who could then align themselves against China (Westcott, Jiang, 2020). An example of this discrepancy within the country is the recently-signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which also includes Australia as one of the biggest and more diplomatically important signatory economies (Gili, Sciorati, 2020). The pact was signed on the 15th of November 2020 by the ASEAN countries and China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia. It represents one of the biggest world trade agreements, connecting about 30% of the world's populations, and its outcomes could generate significant political gains if carefully managed (Petri, Plummer, 2020). Moreover, the RCEP is expected to eliminate between 85 and 90% of the trade tariffs within the new area, and it will define general rules on the origin of goods in the country, thus minimizing internal transportation and transaction costs. The value of the RCEP also stems from putting together historically overlapping issues in a single instrument and dealt with 27 separate free trade agreements (FTAs) and 44 bilateral investment agreements (BITs) between the countries of the region (Gili, Sciorati, 2020). Finally, the RCEP represents a future possible shift in the liberal international market, with the US in a declining and neglecting position and a rising China changing the status quo (Hille, 2020).


Against this backdrop, a study of the escalation of Sino-Australian relations therefore serves as a useful example of the two different ways of action that China adopts, one for the economic ties, and one for the diplomatic interactions. The former sees China as open and as willing as possible to achieve trading and economic relations not only with ASEAN countries, but also with those who used to align with the US yet were deterred by Trump's protectionist rhetoric and his withdrawal of major pacts and international organizations, such as the Paris Agreement, WHO, TPP, etc (Hathaway, 2020). However, the latter sees China isolating itself in diplomacy, being aggressive and non-transparent, portraying an image of caution as opposed to embracing the role of diplomatic mediator. The wolf-warrior approach perfectly underscores this duality. Furthermore, a rising awareness of this duality could prove useful in the European context, where not only the member countries individually but the Union jointly could capitalise on the Australian experience to redefine its future relations with the Asian giant, as well as the ways in which these relations are conducted (Hille, 2020).

Elena Giudice is a young aspiring sinologist. She holds a master’s degree in Language, economy, and institutions of contemporary China, obtained at Ca’Foscari University of Venice (Italy), and has engaged in study experiences at Capital Normal University of Beijing and Southwest University of Chongqing. Passionate about sustainability issues, her research interests mainly include Chinese society, media, and politics. She’s currently a contributor of Centro Studi Internazionali (an Italian think tank) and she is open to more freelance collaborations in writing and producing online content for editorial agencies and e-journals, as well as organizations focused on China. You can find her on Instagram as @elena.giudice and on LinkedIn.

Alice Colantoni is a motivated and eager to learn, graduate with a Bachelor in Chinese Language and Civilization at “La Sapienza” University of Rome. She is currently attending a master’s degree in International Relations and Diplomacy at Shanghai University SHU, China. Her main fields of interest include Chinese History, EU-China Relations, and Chinese political thought in relation with their culture. You can find her on Instagram as @allycolantoni and on LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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