What went wrong with China’s relationship with Australia

What went wrong with the China’s relationship with Australia. By Ted O’Brien.

When China’s ambassador, Cheng Jingye, chastised Australia last April for calling for an independent investigation into COVID-19, he accused Australia of “teaming up” with anti-Chinese elements. “…

“Siding with” and “doing the bidding of” the United States are regular complaints of the PRC. These accusations also featured prominently in their list of fourteen grievances.

Framing Australia as if we were an extension of the United States allows the PRC to effectively dismiss our positions. By wrapping Australia into their master narrative, it triggers a deeply emotional element in the Chinese psyche. This mobilises support in China, but it limits their diplomatic options abroad.

Invoking past wrongs perpetrated by foreign powers and suggesting we are part of a foreign plot that threatens China leaves its diplomats with little room to move, forcing them to take a hard line. In turn, they find it hard to compromise without looking weak, tensions escalate and a zero-sum game starts to emerge. This is what has happened to the Australia–China relationship.

This is a weakness in the PRC playbook. Like any country, the PRC is at its best when it enjoys strategic flexibility. But China’s new brand of nationalism constrains them by invoking emotional triggers about historical humiliation and threats from the West. …

The PRC’s narrative works best at home in China, but that hasn’t stopped them from using it abroad. How else can they seek to justify coercive behaviour against countries like Australia?

The world is watching as the PRC punishes us. By teaching us a lesson, they also warn others about the consequences of getting China offside. What’s more, they can’t afford to be seen to lose, which makes the situation even more difficult to resolve through peaceful negotiation.

It hasn’t escaped the world’s attention, however, that the PRC is picking on Australia rather than tackling the United States head on. In doing so, the PRC is practising the very behaviour it purports to oppose; it is bullying a smaller power against which it has no historical grievance, a country that has never done it harm. This is another reason why it’s so vitally important for the PRC to frame Australia into their narrative of grievances and foreign plots — to do otherwise risks diluting their moral authority in the eyes of the world. …

It’s one thing for the CCP to foster a brand of Chinese nationalism anchored to memories of foreign humiliation, but to imply Australia was party to any traumatic past fails any test of logic, let alone evidence.

When China’s “century of humiliation” began with the outbreak of the First Opium War in 1839, Australia was still a penal colony. We were in the final throes of establishing the Commonwealth of Australia in 1900 when Allied forces of Germany, Japan, Russia, Britain, France, the United States, Italy and Austria-Hungary invaded Beijing to relieve besieged foreign legations and end the Boxer Rebellion. By the time China’s century of humiliation was coming to an end, both Australia and China were fighting against Japan. …

The Australia–China relationship will never be the same again and so the relationship needs to be rebuilt for the future, not the past.