Chairman Xi Jinping is urging his nation onwards and upwards on a new Silk Road towards international dominance. But he’s hit an unexpected roadblock: Australia. Now he’s getting angry.
And his “wolf-warrior” diplomats are leaping into the fray.
“China is angry. If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy,” a Chinese diplomat “leaked” to Nine Newspapers on Tuesday.
And it’s all Australia’s fault.
“Responsibility for causing this situation has nothing to do with China,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a conveniently timed address to state-controlled media in Beijing later that same day.
“The Australian side should reflect on this seriously, rather than shirking the blame and deflecting responsibility,” Zhao warned.
He failed to reflect on Beijing’s role in the escalating standoff.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, did. “Australia will always be ourselves,” he said. “We will always set our own laws and our own rules according to our national interests – not at the behest of any other nation, whether that’s the US or China or anyone else,” he said.
It’s exactly what the wolf warriors didn’t want to hear.
Chairman’ Xi’s ambitions seem likely to continue to be frustrated by Australia. But a frustrated Xi poses a “special kind of danger”, international relations analysts warn.
Beijing insists it has never interfered with other countries’ affairs. Nor is it interested in doing so, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last week.
On Tuesday, Beijing proceeded to do precisely that.
It issued a dossier of 14 grievances against Australia. Addressing these “would be conducive to a better atmosphere”, an embassy official said.
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• Canberra is “poisoning bilateral relations”.
• Canberra is using COVID-19 for “political manipulation”.
• Canberra is using national security as an “excuse”.
And the broader Australian society is also being recalcitrant.
• Australian media is “unfriendly or antagonistic”.
• Australian think-tanks have “repeatedly made mistakes”.
• Australia’s security agencies are “slandering” and “stigmatising” China.
Changing these behaviours to ones more sensitive to Xi Jinping Thought would result in restored economic ties. But there’s a problem. Australia has a history.
It’s a unique history that has produced an eclectic national culture of political incorrectness. Not to mention irreverence, independence and an inherent suspicion of authority. None of these suit an autocratic mindset.
They tend to sit uneasily enough as it is with just about every Australian elected government. Until they’re back in opposition.
XI ON THE MARCH
The crackdown against Australia’s recalcitrance is just one element of Chairman Xi’s rush to cement power. At home, he’s moving hard against any possible perceived threat to the Communist Party he dominates.
He’s even adopted a new title – “helmsman” – once reserved only for the great founding father Chairman Mao Zedong.
“Xi Jinping certainly seems to be cracking the whip with a purpose and a force that, if not new, is certainly designed to impress upon the party, entrepreneurs, citizens and the rest of the world his authority and determination,” Oxford University China Centre research associate George Magnus told US media.
Helmsman Xi unveiled his revised five-year plan to a Communist Party assembly last month.
He urged his commissars to redouble their efforts towards turning his promises into reality. He wants China’s economy to double by 2035. He wants greater state control of Chinese businesses. He wants Hong Kong and Taiwan to submit to his will.
Meanwhile, Xi’s been busy securing his position. He’s made himself national police chief. As chair of China’s Central Military Commission, Xi has ordered an extraordinary series of overlapping military exercises – the latest testing civilian industry’s ability to adapt to military demands urgently. Xi blames an “intensifying situation and increasing risk of military conflicts” as the need for such war preparations.
His Premier, Li Keqiang, is calling on Southeast Asian nations to quickly agree with Beijing’s “Code of Conduct for the South China Sea”. Their compliance would demonstrate “wisdom and capability to take good control of the South China Sea and maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea”.
On top of all this, Xi wants to reshape the international order in his own image.
Which is where Australia’s getting in the way.
“Xi Jinping’s China is an infirm colossus that will be frustrated by unmet ambitions. A strong but frustrated country poses a special kind of danger. This is the China Nightmare,” writes American Enterprise Institute Director of Asian Studies Daniel Blumenthal.
“Although China was ruled by a dictatorship before Xi’s ascent, he has made a radical bid to obtain almost total authority over his country’s affairs. In doing so, he has paralysed the normal functioning of the state’s bureaucracy.”
China’s wolf-warrior diplomats are big on demanding respect. For themselves.
Zhao maintained that line on Tuesday: “We hope the Australian side will admit to the real reason, look at China and China’s development objectively, earnestly handle our relations based on principles of mutual respect and equal treatment and do more to enhance mutual trust and co-operation,” he said.
The hurdle, it seems, is the “mutual” bit.
“We won’t be compromising on the fact that we’ll set what our foreign investment laws are, or how we build our 5G telecommunications networks, or how we run our systems to protect that are protecting against any interference,” Prime Minister Morrison says.
Likewise, Beijing insists it won’t compromise on its arbitrary claim to ownership of the South and East China Seas, the Himalayas or democratic Taiwan. And how it treats Tibetans, Uighurs, Christians, Moslems – and any other group of people – is entirely nobody else’s business.
But Beijing’s belligerence is backfiring.
Instead of compelling international compliance, it’s forcing South East Asia closer together for mutual protection.
“The ‘Beijing model’ was supposed to be an efficient alternative to democracy, which was supposedly more sclerotic and incompetent. Instead, the Beijing model has now inflicted untold misery on its own people and the rest of the world,” Blumenthal writes.
Canberra and Tokyo this week signed a new defence deal making it easier from troops of both nations to work with each other. Though hurdles, such as making Australians subject to Japan’s death penalty, are yet to be resolved.
The need for such a “special strategic partnership” is pressing.
Japanese Premier Yoshihide Suga joined Prime Minister Morrison in expressing “serious concerns” about “militarisation” across South East Asia. They stated the alliance’s “strong opposition to any coercive or unilateral attempts to change the status quo and thereby increase tensions in the region”.
Beijing doesn’t accept such tensions exist. Its territorial claims are uncontested, it insists. And the opinions of neighbouring nations and international courts of arbitration are irrelevant.
“(The) Chinese side is strongly dissatisfied and firmly opposed to their press statement in which they accused China on the South China Sea and East China Sea issue”, Zhao said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao told a Beijing briefing on Tuesday that “some” Australians harbour ideological prejudice, regard China’s development as a threat.
He went on to say Australia’s actions had “seriously hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” – despite a Communist Party approved editorial having declared “Australia immature to be scared of Chinese scholars’ candid opinions”.
Australia, however, has its own feelings.
And Prime Minister Morrison is unapologetic.
“Having a free media, having parliamentarians elected and able to speak their minds is a cause for concern, as well as speaking up on human rights in concert with other countries like Canada, New Zealand, the UK and others in international forums … if this is the cause for tension in that relationship, then it would seem that the tension is that Australia is just being Australia,” he said.
Zao accused Canberra of having “made a series of wrong moves related to China. This is the root cause for China-Australia relations worsening to the current difficult situation”.
Who gets to define what is “wrong” is the issue at hand.
Beijing believes it is itself.
“Under Xi, the Chinese government’s goal is … a new network of strategic partnerships with China at the centre, and to propagate a “China model” of economic and political governance. It wants to create a new world order based on what it calls a “community of common destiny” that reshapes global institutions to be more compatible with the CCP’s own authoritarian governance,” Blumenthal writes.
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull summed up the situation last week: “These sorts of actions, whether it’s trade action like that or furious editorials in the Global Times or People’s Daily, are all instrumental, they’re designed to achieve a certain response, which in our case is compliance.”
Turnbull told a Peterson Institute for International Economics webinar last week that Canberra must remain resolute in the face of mounting pressure. “The one thing you cannot do with Beijing or any other superpower is become sycophantic or to demonstrate that you will just buckle whenever the pressure is ratcheted up, you get no thanks for it – you get less respect.”
Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Michael Schoebridge says Beijing’s hopes to force Canberra to back down as a warning to other potentially recalcitrant states is a “major miscalculation”.
“The example of what Beijing is doing in Australia will impact lots of other countries’ assessment of how they can engage with China,” he said. “Australians don’t like being bullied. We’re much more likely to set our jaw and behave in ways that show we’re not going to be bullied.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel