Security Brief: Rising Tension Between China and Australia
Week of April 19, 2021 | Issue 10
Hayden Cribbon, PACOM
A meeting between the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
Date: April 22, 2021
Location: Victoria, Australia
Parties involved: Chinese Government, Australian Government, Victorian Government
The event: On April 22, the Australian Government canceled two Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects agreed upon by the Victorian State Government and the Chinese Government. They were blocked due to the Australian Government deeming that they were not aligned with their objective of achieving a “free and even Indo Pacific.” China has responded by describing the motivations behind the decision as using a “Cold War mentality and Ideological bias” and stating that Australia should “immediately correct its mistakes and change course.” This dispute adds to a now long list of recent political clashes between the two major trade partners, which include accusations of digital and traditional espionage, reactionary trade tariffs, and claims of electoral interference.
After Australia was the first country to call for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19, China responded by imposing trade tariffs on Australian industries that rely heavily on importing and exporting products to and from China. In combination with the pandemic, this decision has crippled the Australian food and wine sector. Given China’s propensity to retaliate to what it deems as decisions of “disrespect,” it is possible that China would potentially increase the tariffs currently imposed and/or include other industries and sectors. If this does occur, it may force the Australian Government to diversify its clientele and trade partners.
In recent times both China and Australia have accused each other of increased espionage and political interference. While it is difficult to prove any of these claims, likely, both of the countries have at least marginally increased espionage efforts due to recent political disagreements. The cancellation of the Belt and Road Initiative projects is likely to add to this disharmony, and China may start to view Australia as an unreliable and unpredictable partner and therefore, also a possible threat. Furthermore, if both countries are under the impression that espionage is taking place, this will potentially create a cycle where China and Australia increase their espionage activity in response to the opposing nation escalating theirs.
Another consequence of Australia calling for an independent review of COVID-19 was Chinese consumers boycotting Australian products. This has the potential to re-occur as news of Australia’s decision to reject the initiatives has already spread across China through social media platform Weibo with an anti-Australia hashtag being viewed over 260 million times. This mass exposure combined with China’s propaganda machine is very likely to contribute to at least a small percentage of the Chinese population boycotting Australian-made products. Even if it is only a small percentage of the Chinese population, it still counts for millions of people and therefore it has the potential to severely damage Australian industries that have grown to be dependent on Chinese markets.
Date: April 25, 2021
Parties involved: Australian Government, Australia’s Defense Minister Peter Dutton, China
The event: On Australia’s ANZAC day, which commemorates Australian and New Zealand servicemen and women, Defense Minister Peter Dutton warned that if China escalates military coercion in the region, Australia would not hesitate in canceling commercial contracts that potentially put the security of the nation at risk. Dutton was specifically referring to several of Australia's major ports that are currently run by Chinese organizations, most notably the Darwin harbor which is of immense strategic importance due to its proximity to Southeast Asia. Dutton also cited his concern over Taiwain’s situation and noted that a war between China and Taiwan “should not be discounted” as China’s military activity in the area continues.
Australia, India, Japan, and the US have reconciled their partnership through another iteration of the quadrilateral security dialogue (Quad). The partnership was first formed in 2007 but was disbanded by Australia only a year later, as then Prime Minister Kein Rudd signaled that Australia did not want to risk its economic relationship with China by overtly aligning with its competitors. However, conditions have drastically changed to the point that Australia feels it needs to re-adjust its foreign policy priorities due to China posing a significant threat to regional security. Dutton’s comments further highlight this shift as the Australian Government is no longer tip-toeing around China and instead directly highlighting the potential security threats attached to China’s interventionism and expansionism.
It is well known that government-generated propaganda plays a major role in China’s public opinion. This is mainly because China restricts the scope of accessible media outlets that are not strictly pro-China. As such, if the Chinese government wants to demonize any actor(s) within China, it can effectively sway public opinion to justify coercive action against the actor(s) in question. Given the recent tension between the two countries, China may elect to propagandize Dutton’s comments to frame them as explicitly anti-China slander. This will help justify any coercive action against Australia such as increased trade tariffs, escalation in espionage, or military acts of aggression.
As a result of propaganda and negative public commentary present in both countries, there is also the possibility that Chinese and Australian people experience deliberate alienation or vilification when traveling or residing in the corresponding country. If racially motivated incidents do occur, this has the potential to contribute to a retribution cycle where a group or individual seeks revenge on behalf of the victim. Furthermore, if one of these attacks is captured and uploaded to social media, the potential for sparking a series of retaliatory incidents will dramatically rise.
 China rebukes Australia for “Cold War mentality” after Belt and Road accords cancelled, Reuters, April 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/australia-says-it-cancelled-state-deals-chinas-belt-road-over-national-interest-2021-04-22/