How will the Biden administration handle Australia-China tensions?

How will the Biden administration handle Australia-China tensions?
Source: Issei Kato, Reuters
China’s economic and diplomatic conflict with Australia will play a central role in dictating how the new US president navigates relations with the world’s second-largest economy.

Following his inauguration in January, President-elect Joe Biden will face a number of immediate challenges.

The former vice president’s incoming administration will need to take control of an accelerating vaccination program throughout the United States at a time when the coronavirus remains in high circulation. The Biden administration will also have to address increasing signs that the economic recovery from the pandemic has begun to slow.

But international challenges await the Biden administration as well, arguably the biggest of which is China.

US-China relations have deteriorated massively during the four years of Trump’s presidency, with the current president’s administration having engaged in a costly trade war with China, in particular targeting crucial Chinese industries and corporations.

Alongside this general deterioration, however, President-elect Biden will face an international crisis brewing between China and Australia, an American ally.

Relations between the two countries have been on the downturn for years, but 2020 has deepened these tensions, resulting in an ongoing trade conflict and diplomatic dispute.

With preexisting US-China tensions already on the Biden foreign policy agenda, China’s economic and diplomatic conflict with Australia will play a central role in dictating how the new US president navigates relations with the world’s second-largest economy over the next four years.

Tensions down under

In the midst of President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, tensions between Australia and the world’s second-largest economy took a downward turn.

Tensions began to rise in 2018 when Australia became the first nation to publicly ban Chinese tech giant Huawei Technologies from its new 5G network infrastructure. Similar bans have since followed in other countries around the world, with the US placing sanctions on the company as well.

Australia has also been a repeated critic of China’s actions in Hong Kong as well as its militarization of the South China Sea.

In 2020, tensions rose to new heights when China began to flex its economic muscle against Australia.

In May, China began to place restrictions on imports of Australian beef and barley, eventually levying tariffs of up to 80.5% on these imports.

In November, further Chinese tariffs – this time up to 200% – were imposed on imports of Australian wine, with more expected to follow should tensions remain.

The trade conflict is especially harmful to Australia, which exports more to China than any other country. But recent Chinese tariffs have not yet impacted Australian iron ore, one of Australia’s biggest exports and one of the few that China is dependent on Australia for.

Diplomatic hostility between the two countries has also reached a boiling point.

In November, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian posted a doctored image purporting to show an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child, released in response to an Australian report into alleged war crimes by its troops during the war in Afghanistan.

The tweet received widespread condemnation internationally, as did China’s recent sanctions and tariffs on Australian imports.

Australia itself plans to challenge China at the World Trade Organization (WTO), with Australian trade minister Simon Birmingham arguing that China’s tariffs are “not underpinned by facts and evidence” and are instead targeted to prevent criticism of China and make an example of Australia.

Biden’s challenge

China’s economic and diplomatic pressure against Australia has not gone unnoticed.

As Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison observed, “countries around the world are watching” Australia’s dispute with China, as “this impacts not just on the relationship here, but with so many other sovereign nations not only in our own region, but like-minded countries around the world.”

Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong from 1992 until its official handover to China in 1997, recently argued that Australia needs help from its allies and government around the world from what he characterized as “the most extreme example of coercive, commercial” pressure from China.

Should Australia not receive help, Patten continued, other countries will be “picked off” in similar fashion should they ever come to blows with China.

Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu has sounded similar calls, arguing that “like-minded partners need to come in and work together with Australia so that Australia will feel not alone in dealing with the situation” with China.

For the incoming Biden administration, Australia-China tensions present the first hurdle in what will undoubtedly be four long years in navigating America’s own relations with China.

President-elect Biden, despite his past involvement in calling for engagement with China, has nonetheless become a critic of the country’s policies in recent years.

Biden has called Xi Jinping a “thug” and has said that he would strive to “unite the economic might of democracies around the world to counter abusive economic practices,” particularly those at the center of President Trump’s trade war, as well as China’s economic conflict with Australia.

Biden’s foreign policy approach is also said to look longingly back to the multilateral alliance established by the US following the Second World War.

Should a Biden administration seek to involve a coalition of allies in a stand against China, perhaps in defense of Australia, this would prove a contrast to the Trump administration’s habit of standing up to China, more often than not, alone.

It is this multilateral approach that many in the west are calling for. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), is one prominent transnational group supporting multilateral action against China.

The group, consisting of legislators from democracies around the world, has argued that “when countries have stood up to Beijing, they have done so alone.” In the case of Australia, a country whose economy is incredibly dependent on trade with China, this is a futile effort.

IPAC has argued that “no country should have to bear the burden of standing up for fundamental liberties and the integrity of the international order by itself.”

It is likely that in confronting US-China relations, the Biden administration will seek to adopt this new stance, involving allies at all levels to respond to what is seen as a growing threat – economic and otherwise – from China.

With the tense relations between China and Australia, the Biden administration will likely have its first opportunity to test this new, post-Trump approach.

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