In a testy post-Covid-19 world, Chinese sanctions of Australian goods may be closer than ever | Richard McGregor

Coronavirus has added another thick layer of acrimony to an already difficult relationship

During the coronavirus crisis, according to the latest, precise Chinese count, Xi Jinping has spoken with the leaders of 29 countries and international organisations and sent messages of sympathy to about a dozen more.

The Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has been busy too, talking in the last week with the leaders of the United States, France and Germany and others, chasing support for Australia’s initiative for an outside inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 virus in Wuhan.

Notably, the two leaders have not bothered to call each other, something which captures in a nutshell the continuing deterioration in Sino-Australian relations.

Put another way, Australia and China and their governments may no longer talk with each other, but they talk a lot about each other, usually in the most undiplomatic way.

Australia’s push for an inquiry, along with comments from Peter Dutton, the home affairs minister, is a case in point. It drew furious criticism from Beijing, which portrayed Canberra as lackeys of the US, and ignorant and bigoted for good measures.

At the moment, Beijing is like someone who lends you a book and urges you to skip the horrifying opening chapters and flip straight to the end, where the hero – in this case, the party-state – prevails, shining a path for the rest of the world to follow.

In other words, Beijing wants to talk about how China beat the virus, not how Covid-19 escaped Wuhan in January and spread around the world.

The freeze in Sino-Australian relations which set in in late 2016 has thawed slightly here and there, with Morrison and Xi enjoying a brief chat on the sidelines of last year’s G20 meeting in Osaka.

Retired politicians, scholars and business leaders from both countries, led on the Australian side by John Howard and Stephen Smith, the former Coalition prime minister and Labor foreign affairs minister respectively, have gathered twice in the last 18 months for frank, private exchanges.

But any efforts to quietly mend fences has invariably been overwhelmed by the multiple issues that divide the two countries: allegations of Chinese interference in domestic politics, the South China Sea, hacking, Xinjiang, the Pacific, Hong Kong, jailed writer Yang Hengjun, and on and on.

The acrimony even spills into sport, notably swimmer Mack Horton’s labelling of his rival, Sun Yang, as a “drug cheat”, which made the Australian the target of a vituperative campaign on Chinese social media.

At the centre of the rupture is geopolitics, with Australia drawing closer to Washington as China uses its growing muscle to squeeze America out of a region it has dominated for more than 70 years.

It is little wonder, then, that Australia and China fall back on megaphone diplomacy, because at the moment, it’s about the only way they have to communicate.

Covid-19, which originated, as far as we can tell, from the wildlife markets in Wuhan, has added another thick layer of acrimony to the relationship.

Morrison has been noticeably disciplined in how he speaks about China since becoming prime minister, conscious there was no need to make a bad relationship worse by taking gratuitous pot shots.

The Chinese embassy in Canberra, although criticising the China travel ban imposed by Australia in January the early days of Covid-19, has also been, by its standards, relatively restrained recently.

When a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman aired conspiracy theories about how the US military may have been responsible for bringing the virus to Wuhan, the embassy conspicuously avoided repeating them.

But the restraint on both sides has now dropped.

Australia might console itself on one point. Beijing is battling with many countries in the wake of the damage wrought to the global economy by the Covid-19.

In turn, widespread anger at China ought to have translated into broad support for Australia’s initiative for an inquiry. But that hasn’t happened yet. France and Germany, key swing states in the west, have so far demurred.

Australia’s demand for China to be more transparent is unimpeachable. Likewise, it is no surprise that Beijing doesn’t want to talk about what happened in early January, when officials initially delayed alerting the public that a potentially lethal new virus was spreading.

Nonetheless, it seems strange that Marise Payne, the Australian foreign affairs minister, went public with Canberra’s idea for an inquiry before she had built support behind the scenes for the idea.

Instead, rather than moving in lockstep with numerous like-minded countries, Australia has managed to round up only a few supporters.

Still, Australia’s diplomatic shortfalls aren’t a patch on Beijing’s which is alienating country after country with its aggressive rebuke of anyone who dares to question its narrative.

The Chinese call it “wolf diplomacy”, an aggressive new posture which is in sync both with their country’s rising power and their resolution to no longer be pushed around by the west.

As to Australia, Beijing views Canberra with a mixture of simmering hostility and indifference. If Canberra is in lockstep with Washington, they say, what is the point of putting in any diplomatic effort with the country?

Government ministers have long worried that Beijing, which takes more than a third of our exports, would punish Australia with trade sanctions to pressure Canberra to change its political positioning. In the acrimonious, post-Covid-19 world, such sanctions may be closer than ever. If they needed any reminding, Cheng Jingye, China’s ambassador in Canberra, delivered an explicit warning in the AFR of a Chinese “consumer boycott” should the government persist with its call for an inquiry.

• Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute

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Richard McGregor

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