Loading...

Australias trade clash with China is a lesson in what Beijings power really means

Imagine for a moment the view from Beijing. It looks something like this.

The Chinese Communist Party has overseen an economic miracle. In three decades it has taken a country that once could not feed itself and turned it into an economic powerhouse.

More than half a billion people have been lifted out of the poverty. The world has never seen anything like it.

And the Party says China has been good for the world.

It is now the biggest engine of global economic growth. By the end of the decade it most likely will eclipse the United States as the world’s largest economy.

China’s rise has been peaceful. It has joined in a global rules based order: a member of the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation, a permanent five member of the United Nation’s Security Council.

It is a signatory to global compacts like the Paris Climate Accords and engages in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.

China is by any measure a global power. It now rivals the United States. The Communist Party asks, why should it be lectured to by the likes of Australia, a country whose prosperity is tied to China?

It is Australia’s biggest trading partner. China’s economic might, hungry for our resources, underwrote Australia’s 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth.

Xi Jinping claps in front of a red backgroundXi Jinping claps in front of a red background
Chinese President Xi Jinping hears foreigners belittling China again.(AP: Andy Wong)

Why wouldn’t Beijing by annoyed?

When Australia calls for an inquiry into the origins of coronavirus without first liaising with China, why wouldn’t Beijing be annoyed? Of course it would retaliate. Australia’s exporters were always going to be in the firing line.

When Australia announces it has signed a new military pact with Japan, Beijing is insulted. We should have expected that.

Beijing wonders: are we utterly ignorant of the deep enmity between China and Japan? The Japanese invasion and occupation of China during the 1930s and ’40s is a scar on the soul of Chinese people. Millions were killed. China still demands a full apology from Japan.

Scott Morrison bumps elbows with Yoshihide Suga. They are smiling.Scott Morrison bumps elbows with Yoshihide Suga. They are smiling.
A defence pact between Australia and Japan, agreed to by the prime ministers, upset China.(ABC News: Yumi Asada)

Chinese schoolchildren are raised on the history of humiliation: how China was exploited by foreign powers from the mid-18th century. They are told it was the Communist Party that restored the nation’s honour when Mao Zedong declared the Communist revolution.

Xi Jinping — the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao — vows to complete the great rejuvenation of China, to restore it to the apex of global power.

The Chinese have a saying: “If you wish to know the mind of a man, listen to his words.”

Loading

In 2013, not long after taking power, Xi warned the Party leadership that “hostile forces at home and abroad constantly try to undermine our Party”.

He said that without socialism, there would be chaos, and generations of communists had been willing to sacrifice and even shed blood for the country.

China, he told the Party, should prepare for long periods of conflict.

Right now, Australia is in Xi’s crosshairs. When the Federal Government criticises China’s detention of Uighur Muslims or the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, it hears the echo of the “hundred years of national humiliation”.

There is no ‘next’ China

It was one year this week since the likely outbreak of Coronavirus in the city of Wuhan. Xi Jinping now claims victory over the virus in what he calls a “people’s war“.

China’s economy is recovering with some forecasts of nine per cent growth in 2021.

Global management company McKinsey says clients often ask “where is the next China?” There is no next China. It says: “China’s economy is unique and is set to retain its pre-eminent role as the engine of global consumption growth post-pandemic”.

And Australia is looking again to ride Beijing’s coat tails. In this year’s Federal Budget, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg based some of his growth projections on China’s rapid post-COVID recovery.

The Chinese Communist Party looks at America — ravaged by the virus and deeply politically divided — and claims China’s model of authoritarian capitalism is superior.

The view from Beijing is that China is a big power and demands respect.

Australia is in China’s sphere of influence and it is always going to feel the heat, perhaps more than other countries. We are the canary in the coal mine. Other nations are looking to us to see how we navigate these dangerous diplomatic straits.

The view from Beijing is that we are a white Western country, clinging to a world of Western dominance that China does not believe in.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, says Australia created the problems with China and “those who have caused problems should be the ones to solve problems“.

This is the world we live in. China sees itself as the “Middle Kingdom” — the centre of the world — and it expects other nations to pay tribute.

This is not just about diplomacy

Beijing sees this moment as deeply ideological and historical. It is not simply about diplomacy and the stakes are only going to get higher. Surely no one still believes the old shibboleth that we don’t have to choose between our American alliance and our China trade dependence?

Beijing has shown it will make those choices for us.

Scott Morrison is right to say that Australia will “act in our interests and in accordance with our values”.

But we will pay a price. Morrison says China is singling us out for “Australia being Australia”.

Beijing replies: Precisely.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *