How Australia can respond to China’s aggression

Why has China suddenly gone feral in its attitude, and actions, towards Australia?

The spate of destructive measures against Australian exports, the ugly Twitter assault and the associated commentary from Chinese officials speak to something much larger than offence at Australia’s calls for an investigation of the origins of the coronavirus, or criticisms of China’s actions in Hong Kong or treatment of the Uighurs.

Unless there is a regime change in China or Australians are prepared to sacrifice their value and principles for economic benefit, which is improbable, it is difficult to see how the relationship with China can be restored.Credit:AP

The obvious answer is that the Chinese are fearful that Australia’s stance will lead to a wider coalition of like-minded countries finally acting together on the common complaints they have about China and its increasingly aggressive behaviours. It fears a decoupling of its economy from the West.

The Trump administration discouraged international consensus by waging trade wars on friends and foes alike. It disdained multilateral institutions. As a result, China’s relationships with other nations have been bilateral and uneven ones.

Joe Biden has pledged to revive America’s relationships with its traditional allies and rejoin multilateral organisations and agreements like the World Health Organisation, the World Trade Organisation and the Paris Accord on climate change. China’s "divide and conquer” strategy is threatened by the incoming administration.

The Democrats are no less distrustful of China and are no less determined to rein it in than the Republicans but appear likely to be more sophisticated and more inclined to try to develop a coalition of the like-minded than the Trump administration.

The Europeans are already cheering the imminent shift in US policies and approaches, with a European Commission draft paper on a new trans-Atlantic partnership, issued last week, specifically referring to the need for co-operation between the EU and US to meet the strategic challenges posed by China.

Biden, of course, has proposed a "Summit of Democracies” that would be convened next year. It’s a reasonable assumption that China won’t be invited but Australia will be there and, thanks to China’s recent actions, will be a focus of discussions that will range from competing value systems to international security issues, to trade and to unfair competition with China.

China’s use of trade sanctions in response to non-trade issues is generating international disquiet because it underscores its new-found willingness to exercise, nakedly and crudely, its economic and geopolitical muscle.

Under Xi Jinping, what used to be covert in China in terms of its ambitions is now overt. Programs like China’s "Belt and Road” and "Made in China 2025” have laid bare the extent of its ambitions and strategies for realising them. Its territorial ambitions and aggression in the South China Sea have unnerved its regional neighbours.

Joe Biden could take advantage of the situation to seize on the common fears and resentments that the US and its traditional allies have of China’s ambitions and methodsCredit:AP

Chinese companies can leverage the protection of their dominance of their massive domestic markets to compete abroad, which is similar to the Japanese strategy in the 1970s and 1980s when its emergence briefly unnerved Western economies.

Trump’s trade war, while it cited those elements of unfair practice and distorted competition, did very little to address them and the rapidly swelling range of US sanctions on Chinese companies is more of a bilateral response than a comprehensive effort by the major economies to force China to play by the rules that apply to other developed economies.

Where other countries – Japan, South Korea, the UK, India, the Europeans, New Zealand – might be reluctant to risk challenging China on their own, having seen what’s happened to Australia, a reformed WTO and/or a larger and comprehensive alliance of the Western economies, led by the US, would create security in numbers and economic significance.

If China thought that by coming down hard on Australia it would deter others—for fear of similar retaliation – from joining an alliance to curb China’s aggression and challenge the impact of its economic model on their competitiveness it could be proven wrong if its action cause other middle powers to huddle together to gain that security.

It might have overplayed it hand, particularly if Joe Biden seizes the moment to capitalise on the common fears and resentments that the US and its traditional allies – particularly the Europeans – have of China’s ambitions and methods, with China’s treatment of Australia an exemplar for others.

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