Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 3 December 2020


China kicks Australia. And scores a global own goal

By galvanising world opinion, the doctored wolf warrior tweet is forging the international alliance that Scott Morrison hopes can help to manage Beijing.

Phillip Coorey

China's extraordinary behaviour this week has crystallised what was a rapidly forming view inside the Morrison government that this has been a wasted year for Beijing.

Instead of exploiting the moral and power vacuums created by Donald Trump's narcissism and callous indifference, China chose to ape the outgoing US president in style.

The tweet by China's foreign ministry spokesman shows "they have allowed their system of political communication to degenerate to this type of tactic'', said one senior official.

Consequently, it squandered opportunities to generate goodwill and emerge as a respected and leading global player.

There are three key opportunities this year the government believes China has missed.

First, upon the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan and its subsequent global spread, China, instead of fronting up, owning the problem and showing leadership, went on the offensive by deploying its wolf warrior diplomacy of attack and denial.

Second was its increasing use of trade sanctions throughout the year as a weapon of economic and political coercion, not just against Australia, but Canada, Norway and others.

Third, this week's Chinese Foreign Ministry tweet depicting a doctored image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of a child, as if China held some sort of moral superiority with regard to human rights, was significant in that "they have allowed their system of political communication to degenerate to this type of tactic'', said one senior official.

It's one thing to behave like this in a covert manner. It's another to be so overt.

"They are interested in undermining the sovereignty of other nations, they are not willing to respect their foreign investment or national security laws,'' said the official.

China has cemented its reputation as a glass-jawed bully and hung a lantern over the sovereign risk it presents.

In this vein, China's facade began to slip in August when its ambassador in Canberra, Cheng Jingye, told The Australian Financial Review's Andrew Tillett to expect a brace of retaliatory trade measures in response to grievances over foreign policy.

The facade disappeared altogether two weeks ago when its embassy in Canberra gave Channel Nine journalist Jonathan Kearsley a list of the 14 grievances it says justifies its actions.

Of the 14, there is just one the government probably would not do if it had its time again. That was Scott Morrison taking the lead in calling for an independent inquiry into the virus outbreak.

The call bore fruit insofar as an overwhelming number of nations, including China, eventually backed a World Health Assembly motion calling for such an investigation.

But it remains a legitimate criticism over whether Australia should have stuck its neck out, given the domestic ramifications.

Otherwise, everything else on that list is non-negotiable, be it the foreign interference laws, the Huawei ban or the freedoms of speech afforded to the media and democratically elected politicians.

Issuing the list completely delegitimised China's various stated claims about dumping and so forth that it used to justify its trade bans.

Alliance takes shape

The culmination of such behaviour, especially after this week's events, is that China has pretty much galvanised global opinion against it.

Statements of support for Australia from like-minded nations, including the US, the UK, the Europeans and New Zealand have been strong and swift in recent days, both public and private.

Morrison started the year talking subtly about the need to build an alliance of nations, all of which had respect for the international rules-based order, which would help nudge China to act as a good global citizen.

Beijing has done more to establish that alliance than could have been hoped for. It has cemented its reputation as a glass-jawed bully and hung a lantern over the sovereign risk it presents as an investment or trade partner.

In the foreign affairs speech he gave last week, before China moved against Australian wine and joined the ranks of the Twitter trolls, Morrison defended China's right to build wealth and exert influence.

"This is a world where there is no need to build global spheres of influence in order to secure economic opportunity or exert influence, previously only secured by militaries,'' he said.

"Ham-fisted attempt to mend things with Beijing":  Scott Morrison  addresses the Policy Exchange in London.

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