“Repugnant,” was how Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier this week described a tweet by Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, who shared a doctored image showing an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child.
The image, created by a Chinese designer who calls himself a “wolf-warrior artist”, was shared on Twitter by Mr. Zhao, one of China’s most famous “wolf-warrior” diplomats — the name borrows from an eponymous and widely popular patriotic Chinese action film — who is no stranger to controversy, having angered U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this year by suggesting the U.S. military had brought the coronavirus to Wuhan.
His aim was to bring attention to the reported war crimes of Australian soldiers, recently brought to light in an investigation by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) which found not only were 25 soldiers were involved in the murders of 39 Afghan civilians between 2009 and 2013, but senior officers were encouraging junior soldiers to kill captives in cold blood in order to “blood them”.
This was not, however, just a storm over one tweet. The trading of barbs last week was only the latest episode of a dramatic plunge in a relationship between two countries that was, until recently, broadly dominated by robust trading ties.
For Australia, a close American ally, the emergence of China as its biggest trading partner has necessitated a delicate balancing act between trade and security. The trade dependence on China has grown rapidly, with Beijing accounting for as much as 39% of exports, mainly driven by natural resources such as iron ore, and 27% of imports, in 2019-2020, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
China’s share of total trade has only grown this year, but that hasn’t stopped relations from drifting to the brink.
Cracks began to show from 2018, when Australia blacklisted Huawei and ZTE from being involved in the roll-out of its 5G networks. That same year, Australia passed a new foreign interference law that was widely being seen as aimed at China, with officials in Canberra pointing the finger at increasingly widespread Chinese influence operations primarily targeting the Chinese-Australian community, a claim dismissed by Beijing and its State media as hype tinged with racism.
The cracks widened into a gaping rift this year when Australia in April called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and criticised both China and the World Health Organization (WHO) for the initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak, a move that enraged China and brought an increasingly troubled relationship into open discord.
Beijing retaliated with a slew of punitive economic measures, banning meat imports from four Australian plants and imposing an 80.5% tariff on barley, a major Australian export, in May.
This broadened into a wider trading dispute, with Australia initiating its own anti-dumping investigations into Chinese steel and preventing Chinese company Mengniu Dairy from acquiring Lion Dairy & Drinks, which owns some of the country’s most well-known brands. China then effectively banned Australian coal imports, leaving ships carrying millions of tonnes of coal stranded at Chinese ports for months awaiting clearance.
China and Australia being among the 15 countries that signed the landmark Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement in November mattered little to declining ties, which took another turn for the worse that same month after a statement from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. – dubbed the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance – expressing concern over developments in Hong Kong.
“No matter if they have five eyes or 10 eyes, if they dare to harm China’s sovereignty, security and development interests, they should beware of their eyes being poked and blinded,” thundered Mr. Zhao.
The statement on Hong Kong – touching the usual Chinese nerve of “internal affairs” – was followed by Mr. Zhao’s now infamous tweet and Foreign Ministry statements expressing concern over Australian actions in Afghanistan. Asked if the statements meant a shift in China’s stance on “internal affairs” of others, the Foreign Ministry said, “It is no longer a matter of the internal affairs of any country, and it should be strongly condemned by all people with conscience around the whole world.”
The Communist Party-run Global Times put it in less diplomatic language: “Western people are very unaccustomed to criticism from Chinese people,” an editorial said. “The West seems like a tiger that no one dares touch its backside.”
China, particularly angered by the COVID-19 inquiry call, has said the ball is in Australia’s court, while in Australia, negative public opinion about China, amid concerns over its assertiveness and on foreign interference, is growing. A Pew Research Center annual survey in October found negative views on China increased the most last year in Australia, where 81% have unfavourable views, up 24 points from the previous year. All of which has now left both sides scrambling to find a way back from the brink.