05.06.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Why would Australia Want to Worsen its Relationship with China?


The following explanation framed as a question could be added to the headline of this article to make it even more informative: “Why would a prosperous country, which has managed to stay above the fray during global political squabbles and to handle the current COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc worldwide much better than other nations, voluntarily look for trouble?”

It really has no reason to at present. Why is Canberra all of a sudden so concerned about the origins of the Coronavirus? And what practical value is there in finding out the answer? Once the battle against COVID-19 has been won in all parts of the globe, enough information will have been gathered in order to have a fruitful discussion on the aforementioned topic. At present, there is no reason to make any kind of allegations against China either openly or less directly.

So why would a country, such as Australia with its current standing, wish to get involved in a global conflict (and the COVID-19 pandemic is its focus at present), whose main participants are two world powers, and decide to support one of them? In fact, Canberra chose to back the nation whose actions, in response to the pandemic, are almost completely motivated by its worsening domestic problems. Recently, a possible answer to the aforementioned question was published in the New Eastern Outlook.

And in this report, the author simply wishes to point out that Australian Prime Minister’s very constructive telephone conversation with Mr Trump, followed by discussions with a number of European leaders towards the end of April all seemed to indicate Canberra’s support for the US stance. One of the key issues talked about had to do with an independent investigation into the origins of the Coronavirus and its subsequent spread. And although it would appear that China was not mentioned directly, other phrases, such as “unregulated wet markets”, pointing in the direction of the PRC were.

However, since the end of April, Australia’s stance on the issue has changed. The current view essentially avoids laying blame at China’s door a priori. And in the end, Canberra decided to support a draft resolution prepared by the EU and presented at the 73rd Session of the World Health Organization’s (WHO, a UN agency) World Health Assembly (WHA), held in Geneva from 18 to 21 May.

Over 120 WHO member states (out of the total of 194) backed the more neutrally worded motion, which does not mention China by name, calling for an investigation into the global response to the Coronavirus pandemic. None of the countries voted against the resolution, including the United States.

Still, the previous actions taken by the Australian government, headed by Scott Morrison, in connection with the issue of COVID-19 origins had, of course, not gone unnoticed in Beijing, which, at this stage, decided to apply a bit of pressure on Australia’s “weak spot”. In order to point out what it is, the author will once again need to describe the position Australia has found itself in, resembling a “split”, on the chess board of the Indo-Pacific region.

Overall, it seems quite natural that Australia is drawn to the United States and the Anglosphere in general when it comes to culture, politics and even the defense and security sector. However, its economy, which relies on exports of natural resources and agricultural products, is very much oriented towards China’s market.

Australia’s total export sales for 2019 (with figures typical for the entire decade) can be used to illustrate the aforementioned point. Sales to China accounted for 32.7% of all Australian exports in 2019. Japan ended up in second place, with a 24.7% share, and the United States in 5th position, with a 3.7% one. In addition, exports to China grew by 20 % during 2019. Since trade between Great Britain and Australia started from almost nothing, there was a record growth (of 192%) in sales to the UK that year. Fossil fuels and mineral resources accounted for two thirds of all the exports, while animal products and grains for 5.5%.

In 2019, about 85% “of Australia’s exports by value were delivered to Asian countries”. The figures mentioned thus far should have prompted Canberra to follow foreign policies that would, in general, encourage stability in the region and, in particular, foster good relations with the most powerful country in this part of the world, i.e. the PRC.

However, since 2013, when the center-right Coalition essentially headed by the Liberal Party of Australia won the regularly scheduled federal election and then did it again in 2016 and 2019 thus asserting its dominance, the importance of the role played by the extremity (forming the “split”) directed towards the United States has grown noticeably. As a result, there was an increased focus on opposing China (USA’s key rival) as part of Australia’s foreign policy.

Canberra has grown more and more concerned with territorial disputes in the South China Sea involving the PRC and a number of Southeast Asian nations. And although the United States is situated on the other side of the planet, it is becoming increasingly involved in these conflicts. In the most evident display of solidarity with Washington to date, a squadron of Australian naval ships sailed to the South China Sea (to clearly send a message to Beijing) in autumn of 2017. Australian media outlets gave the group of vessels a tongue-in-cheek name of “small armada”.

Still, during bilateral negotiations conducted at various levels, Canberra has always managed to convince the Chinese leadership that there is nothing better than Australian coal, iron ore, crude oil, liquefied natural gas, barley and beef on the global markets. A visit to Beijing by an unusually numerous delegation, headed by the Prime Minister at the time, Malcolm Turnbull, in spring 2016 proved to be a milestone for both nations.

Incidentally, the then Treasurer and now Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison turned out to be the most “convincing” member of this delegation. And two months after he had taken on the current role in August 2018, Scott Morrison sent Foreign Minister Marise Payne to Beijing with an essentially conciliatory message.

Something tells the author that, after a while, once the current highly politicized Coronavirus crisis is (hopefully) somehow dealt with and as the next federal election (in spring 2022) draws near, we could expect a visit to Beijing (for “an edict from on high”) by a no less impressive delegation than the one in 2016 from the government, headed by the Liberal Party of Australia.

After all, farmers and miner have already started showing their discontent about the consequences of the (clearly poorly thought through) “fight for the truth”, which their own government has been a part of in recent months. During that period, seemingly coincidentally, China’s food safety inspectors began to identify “issues” with the quality of Australian meat and prices on coal, ore and barley imported by China from Australia noticeably decreased.

And even if one does not take into account the effect Scott Morrison’s efforts to find those responsible for the outbreak have had, the Coronavirus crisis has already resulted in the increase in Australia’s unemployment rate to over 6%, in addition, according to current estimates, the nation’s economy will need approximately 2 years to recover from all the COVID-19-related consequences. In fact, in his address to the nation, the Prime Minister said that the rise in unemployment had been “just the beginning of the economic fallout of COVID-19”.

Another important factor, which makes the overall situation in Australia even tougher, worth noting is the fact that the PRC leadership is clearly losing its patience (a quality China is famous for) with Canberra. Beijing is also fed up with listening to criticism about its supposed human rights violations in XUAR (the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), Tibet and Hong Kong, directed at it by Canberra’s “big brother”.

Hence, tougher times are ahead for Australia, which for now is still prospering.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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