Relations between China and Australia are fast unravelling.
The growing diplomatic dispute – the culmination of a series of defence, trade and foreign policy disputes – took a nasty turn on Monday when a spokesman for the Chinese government tweeted a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison immediately demanded an apology for the “repugnant tweet”.
Beijing, however, refused to do so. Instead, its officials excoriated Australia for the alleged war crimes committed by its forces in Afghanistan while Chinese state media slammed it for treating “China’s goodwill with evil”.
The Australian newspaper said the latest spat marked the lowest point in China-Australia relations in 50 years.
How did things get here?
China’s assertive foreign policy and the rapid modernisation of its military has long unsettled Australian politicians. A turning point occurred in 2017 when Australia banned foreign political donations, with officials warning of “disturbing reports” of Chinese attempts to influence the political process in Canberra.
The following year, Australia became the first country to ban Chinese tech giant Huawei from its 5G network. It also reportedly went on to block 10 Chinese investment deals across infrastructure, agriculture and animal husbandry.
Relations worsened further this year when Australia called for an inquiry into the origins of the new coronavirus, which was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Beijing has also been angered by Australian criticism of its actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
“They have repeatedly made wrong statements and actions on issues concerning China’s core interests,” Zhao Lijian, the Chinese government spokesman said last month, urging Australia to undertake “deep reflection”.
Another source of tensions has been Australia’s participation in the Quad, an informal grouping that includes the United States, India and Japan.
Beijing has called the alliance a US-led attempt to create an “Asian version of NATO”.
In May, China curbed Australian beef imports and levied tariffs totalling 80.5 percent on Australian barley. Then in November, it imposed tariffs worth 200 percent on Australian wine and is expected to block further imports, including sugar, lobster, coal and copper ore.
With China accounting for about 35 percent of Australia’s total trade, some experts fear an all-out trade war could cost the latter 6 percent of its GDP. In contrast, Australia accounts for less than 4 percent of China’s commerce.
“Australia is playing above its head by trying to politically pressure China when its dependent on China for its economy,” said Einar Tangen, a Beijing-based analyst and economic adviser to the Chinese government.
Journalists have gotten caught up in the spat, too. In June, Australian intelligence and police raided the homes of four Chinese journalists over alleged influence campaigns, while authorities in China questioned two Australian journalists in a national security probe in September, prompting them to leave the country.
Will Australia back down?
Writing in The Interpreter last month, Henry Storey, an Australian analyst, said if Australia wants to resolve the dispute, it may need to apologise for calling for the COVID-19 inquiry, distance itself from the Quad and promise to respect China’s core interests.
But that appears unlikely.
Morrison, the Australian prime minister, signalled Australia will not reverse its China policy after the Chinese embassy shared a list of its grievances with the Australian media.
“I can assure you, we will always be Australia, act in our interests and in accordance with our values,” he told the Seven Network.