The past fortnight witnessed further worsening of Sino-Australian relations and more evidence of how China intends to punish Australia to set an example for other countries that disagree with it. While China’s targeting of key Australian industries such as wine, barley, timber, and lobster, formed the subtext of the souring ties, Beijing’s ‘wolf warrior’ approach towards Canberra is what generated headlines across the globe this fortnight.  

China’s ‘wolf warrior’ (lack of) diplomacy

The Chinese foreign minister spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, posted a fake image on Twitter of an Australian soldier murdering an Afghan child, in reference to the recently released Brereton Report which has uncovered cases of unlawful killing of 39 Afghan civilians by Australian special forces personnel between 2005 and 2016. The tweet was meant to chastise Australia over its human rights record but, as Michael Shoebridge argues, missed the point that Canberra’s approach to the war crimes committed by its soldiers is to be transparent, fair, and accountable- a far cry from the policies of the authoritarian Chinese government and its systematic repression of its own citizens in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. The tweet was slammed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne, with the former demanding the deletion of the tweet as well as an apology from Beijing.

Meanwhile, Australia is preparing to take up the barley tariffs disputes with China over to the World Trade Organization. As referred to in the previous iteration of this wrap, China recently submitted a list of 14 grievances that it has against Australia, which included a wide range of Australian actions such as banning Huawei from its 5G, introducing foreign interference laws, and seeking an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. While Beijing’s actions are clearly meant to generate public pressure on the Morrison government, China is doing itself and its image no favours globally. On the flipside, it might eventually help Australian industries become more resilient and less dependent on China.

Taiwan’s call for help

The Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has sought Australia’s commitment to come to its help against China and to fight for the preservation of democratic values. In an interview, the minister said that Xi Jinping was looking to make Taiwan a ‘scapegoat’ to relieve domestic pressures and that likeminded democratic nations such as Australia have a stake in Taiwan’s security.

Team Biden shapes up

US President-elect Joe Biden announced his nominees for several posts in his cabinet, including all foreign and defence policy officials. Some of the key appointees are Anthony Blinken, who is likely to be America’s next secretary of state, Michelle Flournoy, the next defence secretary, Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor and John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy. Importantly, it’s being reported that the president-elect is considering appointing an Asia ‘tsar’ within the National Security Council.

Interestingly, in the language articulated by a team Biden-insider in the context of this decision, the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ was conspicuous in its absence, replaced by the safer ‘Asia-Pacific’. There are concerns among many Republicans, shared by some analysts, that Biden might pursue a softer approach towards China, regardless of his tough rhetoric or his message about America being ‘back’. As Charlie Lyons Jones puts it, ‘…for countries in the Indo-Pacific that are living under the shadow of an increasingly aggressive Beijing, reviving the Obama administration’s overly cautious approach would be a bad outcome’.

India-Sri Lanka-Maldives Trilateral

Last week, Sri Lanka hosted the 4th National Security Advisor-level trilateral meeting with India and Maldives, the first such meeting in 6 years, to discuss maritime security cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region. As Abhijnan Rej points out, this meeting was significant not only for the time lapse since its last iteration, but also for the very different political orientations of the Sri Lankan and Maldivian governments. While the former has rhetorically proclaimed an ‘India first’ policy, it continues to engage closely with China for its economic interests; Maldives, on the other hand, has relied more on India for relief and aid during Covid, and has also formed strategic linkages with the US and increasingly, with Japan.   

Speaking of Maldives and Japan, Tokyo granted a further $7.6 million in aid to Malé this fortnight, to assist its coast guard and maritime rescue centre. Behind the scenes, it’s implicit that India is on board with greater Japanese and American involvement with the Maldivian government, which goes to show the deep levels of trust that have developed among these nations, and is also a sign of their unprecedented wariness about China’s influence in the island states of the IOR.

Quad tech initiative

Australia has announced the formation of a new tech network among the countries of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and an initial investment worth $500,000 towards it. The initiative is borne out of a need for creating norms for the use of AI and other sensitive tech, protecting 5G networks and ensuring a free and rules-based cyber domain.

Also, this week, Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced that Australia would be partnering with the US to develop hypersonic cruise missiles to counter China and Russia.

Significance for Australia

The mood and tenor of Sino-Australia relations have worsened considerably over the course of the past fortnight. While there’s a great deal of criticism of Morrison’s China policy within Australia by some academics, analysts, former diplomats, and businessmen, and calls for a ‘re-set’ in the relationship, there’s also something to be said about the Australian government’s principled adherence to its values and its tenacity in the face of China’s belligerent diplomacy.

One recommendation being forwarded to help heal the relationship is for Australia to sign up to the Belt and Road Initiative. However, such an approach begins with the premise that somehow Australia is responsible for Beijing’s bad behaviour. Australia’s opposition to the BRI is based on real concerns around sustainability, transparency and affordability of projects- by signing up to the BRI, even if for symbolic reasons, Canberra would risk undermining all those attributes that it aspires to see in the Indo-Pacific. It would set an example for Australia’s neighbourhood, for our Pacific family and for nations in Southeast Asia who are grappling with increasing aggression from Beijing on a day-to-day basis. It would also puncture the wheels of the newly refurbished Quad, and risk undermining the trust that countries such as India have now built with Australia.

Commentators are agreed that there’s no clear or easy path ahead. It’s becoming clear it that there is far more at stake—for both nations—than the bilateral relationship. As Dirk van der Kley writes, ‘Beijing’s ‘carrot for Asia, stick for Australia’ policy is all part of a calibrated plan to economically dominate the region’ and the economic [and other] punishments to Australia are likely to continue ‘so long as Beijing sees that as a useful strategy for influencing the decision of those states.’ For Australia, actively shaping opportunities for effective cooperation with and beyond China will be the defining challenge of the next decade, especially while Biden’s America remains distracted by internal problems. As Frances Adamson reminded her audience last week, in the inevitable competition for influence, ‘how the regional order evolves will profoundly shape our security and other interests.’


Aakriti Bachhawat is a Researcher with the Defence and Strategy team at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute.