China-Australia Tensions Reach New Low

A doctored image on Twitter and massive tariffs on wine . . . 

The already tense relationship between China and Australia is reeling after Beijing slapped tariffs of up to 212 per cent on Australian wine and a high-level Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson tweeted a fake image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s throat. The image references the publication last week of an Australian inquiry that found credible evidence that Australian soldiers murdered 39 unarmed local civilians when deployed in Afghanistan during that country’s ongoing war. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called the tweet “truly offensive” and “repugnant” and has demanded Beijing take down the tweet and apologize. Beijing has refused, responding that Australia owes “an explanation to the world.” In the world of diplomacy, this is incendiary stuff.

The tit-for-tat of escalating Sino-Australian tensions . . .

The Sino-Australia relationship has been on a rocky footing since at least August 2018, when Canberra banned the use of hardware made by Chinese communications giant Huawei in the buildout of Australia’s 5G network. Beijing has responded with tariffs on Australian agricultural goods, of which wine is the latest. China has also warned its citizens against travelling Down Under, citing the threat of racist reprisals. For its part, Australia has called for an independent inquiry through the World Health Organization into China’s handling of the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and is preparing to take China to the World Trade Organization over tariffs on Australian barley exports.

Where to next?

Earlier this month, the Chinese Embassy in Canberra shared with major Australian news outlets a list of 14 grievances, presumably in an attempt to influence Australian policy on each issue. Last week in a major foreign policy speech, Prime Minister Morrison said Australia “desires an open, transparent and mutually beneficial relationship with China as our largest trading partner, where there are strong people-to-people ties, complementary economies, and a shared interest especially in regional development and wellbeing.” At a time of heightened tension and inflammatory rhetoric, Asia Watch hopes cool diplomatic heads prevail in taking small steps toward de-escalation, although recent history suggests this is unlikely.