In a radio interview on Thursday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that he would not yield to “coercion” from China when asked whether Australian exports would continue taking hits from the Asian powerhouse.
“We are an open trading nation, mate, but I’m never going to trade our values in response to coercion from wherever it comes,” Morrison told radio station 2GB.
Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball, who led the Southern nation between 2015 to 2018, echoed a similar view when speaking on China in an interview with This Week In Asia earlier this week.
“If your objective is to win friends, build global influence, and do that around the world, then the less scratchy you are, the less threatening you are, the less you throw your weight around, the better,” Turnbull said. “And of course the more Donald Trump is seen to be doing all of those things, the less you do it – you being China in this case – the more of a contrast you make.”
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Australia has seen a noticeable decline in its relationship with its largest trading partner. The two-way trade relationship is valued at AU$235 billion (US$160 billion) a year.
Australia called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus at the World Health Assembly in May. The move was dubbed by Chinese officials to be a “political manoeuvre” through state media Xinhua News Agency, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese government.
Shortly after this, China imposed an 80% tariff on Australian barley citing anti-dumping allegations. This is when a foreign government, in this case China, believes the exporting country, Australia is selling their barley at below market price compared to the price it normally charges in its own home market which in turn, undercuts Chinese businesses. This specific trade protection could cost the Australian economy at least AU$500 million (US$340 million) per year.
China then doubled down by suspending beef imports from four major Australian meat processing plants just days later.
The moves were a shock to many since the two nations have enjoyed a strong business relationship under the 2015 China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA), which allowed them to enjoy zero tariffs on most products.
In the latest episode, China cautioned their students against studying in Australia due to a “sudden rise in discriminatory and violent actions against Chinese and Asian nationals” since the COVID-19 outbreak, a concern has also been expressed by Australian locals.
This move affects Australia’s international education industry – its fourth largest export industry, contributing AU$38 billion (US$26 billion) in the 2018-2019 fiscal year. Almost a third of all higher education students in Australia are international, with Chinese students comprising the biggest share of them. In 2017, over 230,000 Chinese students were enrolled in Australian schools trumping the second largest international student group, India, which had 87,000 students.
A similar warning was issued on the Friday before, where the Ministry of Culture and Tourism told Chinese tourists to “raise their awareness of safety precautions and avoid traveling to Australia.”
Osmond Chiu, a research fellow at the Per Capita think tank in Australia published a blog post that highlighted a long history anti-Chinese behavior in the country. He said that the recent coronavirus-related attacks mirrored anti-Chinese rhetorics from the past which represented Asians as “unclean, sick, contagious ‘aliens’.”
However, these claims were strongly opposed by Australian officials with Morrison calling them “rubbish … ridiculous assertion[s].”
“Australia provides the best education and tourism products in the world,” he insisted. “The ability for Chinese nationals to be able to choose to come to Australia [has] substantively been their decision. And I’m very confident in the attractiveness of our product.”
However, director of the Australian Studies Centre at Beijing Foreign Studies University Li Jianjun, stated that “The Australian side needs to understand, China only put out a travel advisory, not a travel ban. This is not economic coercion, this is a natural reaction, as many Chinese people will ask why Australia can be anti-China and also earn Chinese money.”
Bucknell University professor of political science and international relations Zhu Zhiqun also explained China’s actions saying, “China cannot conduct business as usual with Australia,” based on their “enthusiastic [stance] in supporting the Trump administration’s highhanded approach to China.”
In the midst of China’s growing tensions with the United States, Australia has demonstrated solidarity with the US. Last week, it was announced that Australia would be joining the US and seven other countries in the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China – an international coalition specifically aimed at combating China’s growing global influence.
“Beijing’s snubbing of Canberra is a strong and clear message to Australia: don’t follow the Trump administration too closely and make China-Australia relations difficult,” warned Zhu. “China and Australia have their own interests in the dynamic relationship, and they should manage the relations themselves, unaffected by others.”
Have a tip or story? Get in touch with our reporters at [email protected]