The growing friction between China and Australia is a function of Beijing’s swagger and self-confidence. Israel must take note of Beijing’s aggressive behavior, and cautiously navigate its own relations with China.
“China is angry. If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.” That is how a Chinese embassy official recently summed up her country’s diplomatic stance regarding Australia. Relations between Beijing and Canberra significantly have deteriorated following a diplomatic incident so bizarre that the matter could almost be missed. She made the remarks to a local reporter November 2020 in the capital, after handing him a sheet of paper with a bulleted list of fourteen points: “I want it to be clear that’s what worries China” (Kearsley, 2020).
On the same day, Chinese spokespeople accused Australia of “causing current difficulties in bilateral relations” and demanded that it “correct its mistakes” to bring bilateral ties “back on track.”
The Chinese are demanding that Australia reverse several decisions on domestic and foreign policy issues such as 5G infrastructure restrictions, stricter visa policies, and bans on foreign investment. Multiple Chinese complaints have been lodged against Australia regarding freedom of expression, including ” antagonistic” statements against China and the Chinese Communist Party by the Australian press, sitting parliamentarians and independent research institutions. Other complaints have been aimed at the “politicization of relations”, appeals against China on the world stage, and Australian adoption of “the American anti-China line”.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s short response to the allegations: “Australia will always be ourselves. Of course, we will set our own laws and our own rules according to our national interests, not at the behest of any other nation.”
China-Australia relations have deteriorated ever since April 2020 when Foreign Minister Marise Payne called for an international independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 and China’s handling of the outbreak. Her campaign was hailed as a success after 130 countries passed a motion for an independent investigation at the World Health Assembly. Reluctantly, China also supported the motion.
But Chinese Ambassador to Canberra Cheng Jingye expressed Beijing’s displeasure at the motion and described “hypothetical” situations in which Chinese tourists and students would stop coming to Australia, while Chinese consumers would boycott Australian beef and wine.
This is no small matter, since the Chinese market accounts for 26% of Australia’s exports ($150 billion); 1.43 million tourists and 229,000 students headed Down Under in 2019; and China is the largest export market for Australian products ranging from coal, iron ore and liquefied natural gas to beef and wine.
In the following months, tensions continued to rise as Australia suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong over Chinese national security legislation and submitted a statement to the United Nations challenging Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. In October, Foreign Minister Payne joined other parliamentarians in a statement criticizing China’s policies and condemning its oppression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
Meanwhile, China has imposed selective anti-dumping and anti-subsidy measures, tariffs and import caps on Australian goods such as coal, wine, beef, seafood, timber, barley, and cotton. For some commodities, Chinese retailers were ordered to stop importing from Australia altogether. In addition, in June, the Chinese government issued separate travel warnings to discourage any remaining tourists and students wishing to travel to Australia during the pandemic.
Some power plants and steel mills have been ordered to stop importing coal and iron ore from Australia. In November it was reported that at least 60 Australian coal vessels carrying hundreds of crew members were barred from unloading at ports in southern China. In recent months, Australia has also claimed that government ministers have been unable to contact their Chinese counterparts.
To this day, Beijing officially denies that the economic diplomatic situation is relevant to their economic policies towards Australia, but the hypotheticals of the Chinese ambassador clearly are seen by the Australian side as economic bullying. Beijing claims to have acted in accordance with the law and has challenged the Australian side to refer their complaints to the World Trade Organization. (Australia indeed has done so, much to Beijing’s dismay.)
The deteriorating relationship turned into a free-fall in late November when a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman tweeted a photoshopped graphic of a grimacing Australian soldier nailing a bloody knife to the throat of an Afghan boy. The tweet was accompanied by a scathing condemnation of the reported illicit killing of 39 people by Australian troops in the Afghanistan war.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an official apology from Beijing and the removal of the tweet, but China had other plans. Not only did China fail to apologize, but it mobilized the entire country’s state-owned and private media outlets to criticize the West in general and Australia in particular for “trampling on democracy, human rights and freedom” in Afghanistan and for their “double standards and typical hypocrisy.”
Relations between China and Australia have not always been so tense. The two countries have strong economic ties, hold annual government dialogues, and cooperate in research, culture, education, and the environment. Australia is home to 1.2 million citizens of Chinese descent, who make up about five percent of the population and are an integral part of Australian culture, politics, and history.
China is Australia’s most important trading partner. The latter provides China with vital strategic resources, including more than 60% of its iron ore imports, vital to its development, and upwards of half of its thermal coal imports. The recent widespread power outages that have plagued Chinese citizens living near sub-zero regions are thought to be the result of a 47% drop in Australian coal imports in October.
When the atmosphere was warmer in 2014, Xi Jinping visited Australia on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, and the two sides elevated their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, the highest level in Chinese diplomacy. A year later, the two sides signed a free trade agreement as China became Australia’s largest trading partner for the 11th year running.
However, several trends that emerged at the beginning of the decade put a damper on relations. Particularly noteworthy were the US pivot toward Asia and the growing disputes between China and its neighbors over territories in the south and east China seas due to Beijing’s liberal interpretation of maritime borders. In parallel, Australia has become a leading advocate for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
From mid-decade onward, Canberra has felt that Beijing’s growing assertiveness and illegal maritime activities ominously undermine peace and stability in the region. For its part, China began to see Australia more as a southern strategic-military anchor of the US than as a Chinese partner.
In 2016, there also were several high-profile cases of Chinese interference in Australia’s politics and economy, as well as attempts to suppress academic freedom of expression. This led the Commonwealth Government to pass a series of foreign interference laws in 2017. A year later, it was the first country to block Chinese telecom powerhouse Huawei on the grounds of national security interests, having previously blocked its participation in a tender for a national broadband network contract.
In the same year, Morrison tried to “to torpedo” Victoria’s entry into the Belt and Road Initiative (as the fourteen-point Chinese grievance list put it), a move that could yet be acted upon following passage this month of a new Australian Foreign Relations Bill.
China has reiterated its litany of complaints to major media outlets, and echoed them in Foreign Ministry briefings, without acknowledging Beijing’s own role in the deterioration of relations. This reduces the likelihood that Australia can negotiate matters without appearing as kowtowing to China. The photoshopped Australian soldier incident is just the icing on the cake.
Why Has China Decided to Burn Ties with Australia?
The Chinese took very seriously the initiative of the Australian Foreign Minister to conduct an independent investigation (in April 2020) into the handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, an initiative that was taken without any consultation with Beijing. Australia was the first country to make such a request publicly at a time when the Trump administration was vigorously promoting the “China virus” narrative. Beijing believed that Australia was currying favor with the US at Chinese expense.
It was the last straw for the Chinese, atop other matters mentioned earlier, such as Australian leadership of international claims against Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea, foreign interference laws aimed at opposing China’s economic and technological undertakings (like the blocking of Huawei), and condemnations of human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
China believes that Australia is abusing “freedom of expression” to foster an “anti-China” atmosphere. Examples that have received widespread official attention in China include statements by a group of hawkish Australian parliamentarians who call themselves the Wolverines; publications and reports by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) on the Xinjiang Data Project, which highlights Beijing’s systematic human rights violations against ethnic minorities; and a children’s comedy sketch showing Wu Zetian, the only empress in the history of the Chinese dynasties, dressed in a stereotypical costume while using chopsticks to eat cockroaches.
Australia is a member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, along with Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US, whose activities are rooted in Cold War pacts. In November 2020, the alliance criticized Beijing for impeaching Hong Kong lawmakers. One month earlier, Australia participated in a naval exercise with the US, Japan and India – China’s strategic rivals, which added to Beijing’s suspicions that this is a framework whose entire purpose is to contain China’s growing presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
In short, Beijing feels that Australia has become complicit in a US-led Western scheme to contain China’s rise. These feelings are well summarized in an anonymous article published in early December which went viral on the Chinese web and was even quoted by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman. In “I Can, You Can’t: Looking at the Western Psyche from the Australian Episode” (Ning, 2020), the author argues that a sense of superiority “has become a permanent factor in the modus operandi of white Europeans and Americans. ‘In any action, I (white European-Americans) must be in a dominant position while you (Chinese) are in an inferior position’.”
Because of this, the feeling of many Chinese is that the West thinks it is the sole arbiter of who can impose sanctions on other countries, block 5G technology and chips, sell weapons to hostile factions, criticize the human rights conditions of other countries, and have provocative diplomats. But when China does the same, everyone cries havoc.
Without dwelling on the merits of the Chinese claim, it is understood from the above that Beijing’s relationship with Canberra has reached a breaking point. There are several possible explanations for Beijing pushing its relations with Australia to this point.
First, after failing to lower the flames through traditional channels, Beijing is trying to force Australian behavior through economic means.
Second, while the world is preoccupied with the Covid pandemic and facing economic recession, China has managed to contain the virus and is experiencing economic growth. In Beijing’s view, this puts it in an unprecedented position to reassert its standing on the global stage. Beijing is testing the limits of its power through the democracrtic and most loyal ally of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region – and the weakest member of the Quad – in preparation for future confrontations with other countries that may oppose its ascendancy down the road.
At the end of November, China’s top diplomat and Politburo member, Yang Jiechi, who serves as Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party, published an article in Party mouthpiece The People’s Daily wrote that amid many external challenges, “China’s international influence and appeal are constantly growing.” (Yang, 2020).
Third, China is mobilizing its economic, propaganda and political tools to exert enough pressure on Australia to dissuade its government and citizens from engaging in anti-China behaviors in the future.Other middle powers, witnessing Australia’s plight under Chinese duress, will think twice before acting against Chinese interests and treat China with the “respect” commensurate with its major power status.
Fourth, China knows from past diplomatic crises with other middle powers that relations with Canberra will return to normal. Australia has limited options. The global economic crisis in the wake of the first wave of the pandemic has plunged Australia into its first recession in 29 years, and it cannot afford to wage a war of economic attrition against its largest trading partner. It has been calculated that a trade war would cost Australia up to 6% of its GDP, compared to China’s 0.5% (Tyers & Zhou, 2020).
Fifth, China is using the sensitive transition period in the United States through January 2020 to test how the incoming administration will respond to China’s assertiveness. As a member of the Five Eyes Coalition and an important strategic partner of the US, Australia is a testing ground for Biden’s red lines in relation to other countries. (As of early December, the strongest reaction was a tweet from incoming national security adviser Jack Sullivan, who said the US would stand by Australia).
Recommendations for Israel
A cursory look at the fourteen-point document shows that Israel also has “violated” at least six of the points, including its decision to establish an advisory board to oversee foreign investment, its de facto ban on Huawei and ZTE’s 5G infrastructure, and its “antagonistic” coverage of China in the Israeli press.
As noted earlier, these “red lines” already have been identified by Beijing and are frequently mentioned in every other regular press conference of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Moreover, Australia is not the first country to face Chinese pressure for allegedly infringing Chinese interests.
Ranging from Japan through Norway, China has in the past “punished” or sought to impose policy changes on other countries through plausible deniability, such as issuing travel warnings (stopping organized tourism), encouraging “patriotic consumption” (boycotts), “exit bans” (detaining foreign nationals), and anti-dumping measures (selective tariffs). The publication of the Chinese list suggests that this will not be the last case and that the phenomenon is expected to become even more widespread.
In Israel, there have also been instances of apparent pressure from China. The last reported case was in 2018 after President Trump announced the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In response, the Chinese Embassy in Israel issued a travel warning to its citizens, which was likely the reason behind the decline in Chinese tourists that year.
Like Australia, Israel is a developed democracy with a relatively small population. It is a regional power and a close ally of the United States. To a lesser extent, Israel exports to China strategic resources (mainly microchips, fertilizers and chemicals), creating an interdependent relationship.
On the other hand, the geographical proximity of China and Australia, as well as the degree of bilateral ties in terms of commerce, culture and history, are significantly more important than in the Sino-Israeli relationship. The dynamics are also completely different in terms of strategic, geopolitical and other qualitative dimensions, as evidenced by Canberra’s Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Beijing compared to China’s Comprehensive Innovation Partnership.
However, the lessons and implications that democracies can draw from the ongoing events between Beijing and Canberra are numerous, so it is surprising that the topic has not received more extensive coverage in Israel and the West. Below are suggestions for Israeli policy in light of recent developments.
* Defining Red Lines – Israel must carefully study the the list of Chinese “grievances.” A strategy for maintaining a stable relationship with China should emerge from reconciling bilateral expectations and clearly defining red lines based on national interests and policies on domestic and foreign affairs, freedom of expression and human rights. As China goes to great lengths to make its so-called “bottom lines” public, Israel should clearly define the criteria for foreign interference and resolutely protest blunt interventions from abroad.
At the same time, the Australian experience shows that sometimes ambiguity, leveraging nuance, and a proper reading of the geopolitical map, are the wisest moves. When former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pronounced in Mandarin in 2017 that “The Australian people stand up!” (this is a paraphrase of Mao Zedong) while his government passed a law against foreign intervention, his insistence that the restrictive legislation was not directed at just one country was unconvincing.
Israel has kept Huawei out of its communications infrastructure. Nevertheless, Israel has not officially joined the Clean Network coalition of a few dozen countries promoted by US Secretary of State Pompeo since April 2020, which explicitly targets China.
* Preparing an Interim Report on Foreign Intervention in Israel -Similar to the November Decision of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on “Intervention and Financing of Foreign Countries” against Israel (mainly EU countries), the National Security Council could submit an interim report to the Committee examining, among other issues, the 14-point document and providing estimates of costs and impacts of coercive actions.
* Learning from the Experience of other Countries – Israel must maintain a continuous dialogue with Australia and other democracies that have been pressured by China over the past decade. Countries such as Australia have made tactical mistakes in dealing with China. Morrison was wrong to choose to personally respond to a mid-level Chinese diplomat’s provocative tweet and demand a public apology for trying to use diplomatic tools to solve a problem that was beyond the accepted limits of diplomacy for China to begin with.
Japan, on the other hand (with whom China shares a history of bloody wars, territorial disputes and tensions over military cooperation with the US), has shown that disputes with China can be handled without jeopardizing economic and political relations, or giving up sovereignty or leading to an implosion of relations.
If the aim is to prevent escalation with China (which in the Australian case was not necessarily possible, subject to Beijing’s intentions), the core principle is to avoid making headlines. In his attempt at reconciliation in August, China’s deputy ambassador to Australia, Wang Xing, put “respect” at the top of his list of four principles for maintaining healthy bilateral relations.
There is room for deeper discussion on the full contours of “respect,” but in a nutshell, giving an ultimatum to a government that bases its legitimacy on the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” after suffering “a century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers – is clearly not the way to go.
Diplomatic and political crises between China and Japan over the past two decades have taught us that diplomatic channels must be nurtured in tandem with vigorous relations in commercial, cultural, interpersonal and economic channels on a regular basis, so that balanced relations can be sustained while political relations are restored.
* Ongoing Engagement with the Chinese Ambassador to Israel – This year’s problematic remarks by the Chinese ambassador in Australia have been accompanied by undiplomatic remarks by the Chinese ambassadors to the UK, Sweden and Canada that have gained international scrutiny and provoked local outrage. If these incidents do not demonstrate the centrality of the Chinese ambassador in cultivating bilateral relations with China, they certainly show that he can harm them.
Israel almost had a similar incident in February when the Chinese Chargé d’Affaires in Israel compared Jerusalem’s decision to close the border to prevent infection from incoming Chinese travelers to the rejection of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. The embassy was quick to issue an apology after widespread outrage towards the remark and the incident was largely forgotten.
A new ambassador to succeed Du Wei, the Chinese ambassador to Israel who suddenly passed away last May, has not yet been announced. When he or she arrives in Israel, it will be an opportunity for China and Israel to re-align mutual expectations, develop positive diplomatic and personal relations, and strengthen conflict resolution mechanisms.
* Retain the Innovation Forum – The fifth annual meeting between China and Israel did not take place this year due to pandemic restrictions, but is expected to take place next year. Despite the name, the forum (which meets alternately in China and Israel) is more than just a platform for innovation cooperation. Both sides send top-brass participants, consisting of as many as thirteen envoys of government ministers, business leaders and decision-makers from a variety of sectors.
Such a recurring event is an opportunity that many countries do not possess. Having an open channels with China at the ministerial level or above ensures that the phone lines between Beijing and Jerusalem are not broken, and that a sitting prime minister is not barred from visiting China, as is the case in Australia.
* Joint Action Against Racism and Antisemitism – The racist messages about Chinese eating habits on Australian children’s programs are reminiscent of Israeli prime-time rhetoric about “bat-eaters” that has been with us for the past year. Freedom of speech is a paramount principle in Israel, and the Israeli government should not do anything but explain that making such statements are a fundamental right of its citizens, despite their inaccuracy and offensive nature. However, the Chinese rightfully claim that the state should not encourage abusive speech, as in the case of the Health Ministry’s blunt Covid-19 campaign featuring comedian Yossi Gavni, which was shelved at the request of the Chinese Embassy.
Just as in Israel, where the eruption of Covid-19 has opened the door to racist rhetoric against people of Asian descent, the Chinese media also has expressed harsh antisemitic reactions alongside anti-Muslim rhetoric (contrary to the conventional wisdom that this phenomenon does not exist in China). A campaign against racism and antisemitism could be fertile ground for Sino-Israeli dialogue and cooperation.
* Human Rights – At the crux of the dispute between Australia and China is what the former sees as a violation of human rights, and the latter considers interference in its internal affairs. If we take China’s policy in Xinjiang as an example, Israel has three main options. It can join some Arab countries and sign a letter of praise for China’s policy toward the Uighurs, or, conversely, join international initiatives led by the United States and European countries that condemn the Uighur genocide.
Israel has opted for the third option of remaining “silent” – in contravention of its moral responsibilities, as I view them – for the same reasons it has so far refused to recognize the Armenian genocide and has been careful not to condemn human rights violations committed by some Arab countries. In contrast, Australia took a fourth option when it decided to spearhead an international initiative to condemn China.
* Dependence – Israel’s dependence on China is not on par with that of Australia, but the economic relationship between the two countries has strengthened considerably over the past decade. Today, China is Israel’s second largest trading partner, a relationship that has been a boon to the average Israeli consumer. Despite external pressures, the bilateral relationship remains positive, and it is important for both countries to maintain this trend in the post-pandemic recession period.
However, if China is willing to cross swords with Australia, it goes without saying that it will not hesitate to apply economic leverage and consumer boycotts against Israel. Jerusalem must not develop a dependence on China, and it should prepare for an extreme scenario of a near-immediate cessation of economic ties.
The confidence and aggressive diplomacy currently being employed by the Chinese government is almost unprecedented, and increasingly will be reflected in friction between China and other countries. Whether Australia is a canary in the coal mine – a warning sign for the world’s democracies – or just an isolated diplomatic episode, Israel and the West would do well to monitor the Australian situation. It could be the beginning of a trend in Chinese foreign policy. Countries ought to learn from this situation how to maintain good relations with Beijing without compromising Western sovereignty and values.
Australian Government (2016). Defence White Paper. Canberra: Department of Defence. Retrieved from https://www.defence.gov.au/whitepaper/Docs/2016-Defence-White-Paper.pdf
Kearsley, J. (2020, November 23). ‘There it was, China’s list of grievances’: How 9News Got the Dossier at the Heart of the Latest Diplomatic Scuffle Between Canberra and Beijing. Retrieved from Nine News: https://www.9news.com.au/national/china-dossier-canberra-beijing-diplomatic-tensions-how-jonathan-kearsley-broke-the-story/216a985d-3289-4988-8781-e6dc479f0d74
Ning, N. (2020, December 01). wǒ kěyǐ, nǐ bù kěyǐ–yóu àodàlìyǎ shìjiàn kàn xīfāng rén de xīnlǐ (I can, you can’t – Looking at the Western Psyche from the Australian Episode). Retrieved from Guancha: https://user.guancha.cn/main/content?id=421525
Tyers, R. & Zhou, Y. (2020, November 30). An all-out trade war with China would cost Australia 6% of GDP. Retrieved from The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/an-all-out-trade-war-with-china-would-cost-australia-6-of-gdp-151070?utm_medium=ampemail&utm_source=email
Yang, J. (2020, November 30). jījí yíngzào liánghǎo wàibù huánjìng (Actively Create a Good External Environment). Retrieved from People’s Daily: http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrb/html/2020-11/30/nw.D110000renmrb_20201130_1-06.htm?mc_cid=a7a519ea3d&mc_eid=db6a0cd413
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