The downward spiral of Australia-China relations is getting near a tipping point towards a Cold War and must be stopped. Such a Cold War cannot help anybody and, in the short term, will be very difficult to reverse.  Already the trust in bilateral relations, which took years to build up, has long been undermined.

Take the example of reaction to COVID-19, which has been much in the news lately. When Foreign Minister Marise Payne called for an independent enquiry into the development of COVID-19 in an interview on the ABC on 19 April, she immediately went on to suggest that, due to its lack of transparency, a review of relations with China was under way.

A few days later Ambassador Cheng Jingye made a calm statement saying that China preferred cooperation to deal with the pandemic and rejected a suggestion for a review into COVID-19 that, under the guise of being an independent and comprehensive review, sought to blame China for spreading the virus throughout the world. A journalist from the Financial Review goaded the Ambassador with his own concern, that China was out to punish Australia for leading an independent review (See Jocelyn Chey, “Who would be a Chinese ambassador?”). Cheng foolishly capitulated and offered the opinion that Chinese might regard Australia as a hostile country and less willing to send students to Australia. That was the only thing anybody remembered. The upshot was that China was dubbed a bully, a nasty country that did not want Australia to lead an independent and comprehensive review into the origin and spread of the coronavirus.

Of course, China did not see it that way. The Chinese resented the fact that they were apparently in the dock when their own leaders were calling for defeating the virus as a top priority. In the end, the World Health Organization resolution adopted by virtually all countries on 19 May called for an evaluation and review of the WHO-initiated reaction to the COVID-19 experience. It was closer to what Xi Jinping had called for in his introductory speech than it was to what Australia had been calling for. Moreover, Xi offered $2 billion for international help against the virus, as well as any vaccine China developed as a common good, not a commercial product.

The Australian government and mainstream media presented the whole series of events as a vindication of Australia’s initial call. My take is that it was nothing of the sort. I think it showed China as more internationally minded and generous in its approach than either Australia or, especially, the United States. It also had the effect of delivering an unnecessary blow to Australia’s relations with China.

Australia of course had the right to lead this attack on China, under the guise of an independent and comprehensive review of the origin and spread of COVID-19. But it was unnecessary, foolish and counterproductive. You don’t have to defend everything China does or its reactions. But the simple truth is that if a country goes out of its way to insult another one, it will react.

Last Tuesday (16 June), Foreign Minister Marise Payne gave a speech in which she denounced China, Russia and Turkey for cyber attacks in Australia. On Friday, Morrison held a press conference with the same message, saying the attacks were serious enough that only organization at national level could carry them out. He didn’t mention any specific country, but it was pretty clear he was referring to China. The same evening, a headline appeared in the web version of The Australian that the Australian Strategic Policy Institute had named China. Of course, an official Chinese spokesman denied the charges.

Why now? We’ve had cyberbullying from various sources for a long time, and neither Payne nor Morrison gave specific reasons why the situation was more serious now than before. I think it is probably part of a long-term campaign against China, to justify why Australia should take part in a Western effort to stereotype China as totalitarian enemy, rather than the friend it’s been since the 1970s. I agree strongly with a comment made in direct reaction to Payne’s speech at the Australian National University that it was “boofhead diplomacy”.

But let’s be fair. Apart from her attack on China, Payne also made it clear that she still supported multilateralism. This is important. We are at a time when Trump is more and more withdrawing the United States from multilateral organizations and fora, such as the World Health Organization and the Paris agreement on climate change of 2015. China wants to remain in these organizations, and it’s good if Australia does too.

Earlier this month, also, China announced that it was advising young people against going to Australia as students. The reason given was that there had been a spate of racist incidents in Australia. This is extremely worrying. Recent reports (for example see article by Naaman Zhou in The Guardian Australia, 1 June 2020) suggest strongly that in Australia there has been a spike in racist incidents against Asians, including Chinese, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Black Lives Matter demonstrations also indicate many people see systemic racism in Australian society.

My own view is that the reports of an anti-Asian spike in racism are credible and must be taken seriously. On the other hand, I doubt very much that racism is serious enough to make it unsafe for students to come here. Just at present, the whole situation for international students is difficult because the borders are closed due to the pandemic. I suspect that the impact of these accusations from China will be noticeable but temporary. However, I think we have to be very careful not to do anything that could endanger the lively student and academic relations Australia has with other countries, China being extremely important at present. The value of these students to Australia is incalculable, not only in financial, but also in human and academic terms.

Looking back over the last three years or so, a whole series of incidents has damaged Australia’s relations with China. Not all are Australia’s fault by any means. But many of them are. I think we should be very careful not to irritate China. We have more to lose than they do.

Just at present I think we should be very wary of fawning too much on the Americans. The Trump Administration is extremely unreliable and the signs are that the United States is fundamentally turning against China and also tending to draw in on itself. In addition, a poll of 120,000 people in 53 countries (reported in The Guardian Australia, 15 June 2020) showed that, throughout the world, 60 per cent of people think the Chinese have handled the pandemic well, far higher than the one-third who similarly credit the Americans. It’s a view I personally share.

It’s in Australia’s interests to try and conciliate China as far as possible. The way it looks to me, the Morrison government is going out of its way to insult China and make it an enemy. It is not that and should never be. Of course, we want better relations with such countries as India, as well as more students and trade. But it should not be at China’s expense. It is all too easy to sneer at the hard work that has gone into building trade, academic relationships and political good will with China, now that it’s a country with a poor image in the West. But it’s not sensible. And if we’re not careful it will cost us dearly.


Colin Mackerras AO FAHA is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Business Strategy and Innovation and the Griffith Asia Institute.