The last time Xi Jinping visited Australia in 2014, the Chinese president received a standing ovation when he delivered a speech to parliament in which he said both nations should deepen political trust, expand co-operation and sign a free trade deal.
Six years later, such cordial relations are a distant memory. Beijing refuses to return Australian government ministers’ phone calls, has slapped sanctions on its agricultural exports and warned of consumer boycotts over Canberra’s call for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.
The depth of Beijing’s hostility towards Australia is perhaps best illustrated by its state media, which has described Canberra variously as “a giant kangaroo that serves as a dog of the US”, and as “chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes”.
Rory Medcalf, from the Australian National University, said: “It is a singularly difficult phase in bilateral relations.
“We’ve had multiple problems before but the difference this time is China is deliberately prolonging the friction and the cold shoulder . . . China has changed with Xi Jinping taking it in a direction of internal repression and external assertiveness.”
Canberra is not alone in falling foul of Beijing, which stopped buying some Canadian farm products following the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.
Dave Sharma, an Australian government MP and former diplomat, said the relationship with Beijing had become more difficult to manage because China had changed.
It had grown more assertive, nationalistic and aggressive in pursuing its aims, he said, adding that Canberra wanted a positive relationship with Beijing but this could not be on the basis of trading away sovereignty.
“The ‘wolf warrior diplomacy we are seeing in Australia is becoming replicated around the world,” he said.
“This is no longer a simple trade or economic relationship. Australia has been alive to China as a strategic actor for many years. But many in Europe, and especially in the UK, are only just waking up to this fact, and realising that China is more than an economic play.”
Canberra is particularly vulnerable to “economic coercion” as China accounts for a quarter of Australia’s two-way trade worth A$235bn in the year to the end of June 2019. The country is also facing its first recession since 1991 because of the coronavirus emergency.
The “war of words” between Canberra and Beijing and trade sanctions have alarmed Australian business. It has also prompted a debate over the Liberal-National coalition’s handling of Sino-Australian ties and its close relationship with US President Donald Trump.
Some critics fear Canberra has abandoned its public stance of not choosing between the US, its strategic ally, and China, its biggest trade partner.
“We have been too close to the Americans. I think that’s the main reason for the decline, although not the only one . . . I don’t like the way [prime minister Scott] Morrison fawns on Trump,” said Colin Mackerras, emeritus professor at Griffith University.
Prof Mackerras blames big shifts in geopolitics, China’s growing global influence and Canberra’s apparent willingness to do Washington’s bidding for the strained relationship.
The immediate crisis follows Canberra’s decision to lead calls for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, a move that prompted allegations from Beijing that Australia was teaming up with Washington to launch “a political campaign” against it.
There are signs that the normally bipartisan approach towards foreign affairs in Canberra is under strain. Labor is questioning Mr Morrison’s close relationship with Mr Trump and asked the government to explain whether a US-China trade deal — which commits Beijing to buying more American farm goods — has played a role in China’s imposition of tariffs on Australian barley.
Sino-Australian relations began to sour as far back as 2016 when Canberra grew concerned about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and interference in its domestic politics. This coincided with the election of Mr Trump and his administration’s declaration in 2017 that Beijing was a “strategic competitor” to the US.
That same year, Canberra introduced foreign interference laws and pinpointed China as the main threat. A year later Canberra became the first nation to completely ban Huawei from its 5G network. The decision outraged Beijing.
Chinese investment has fallen sharply. Approvals for Chinese investment in Australia halved to A$13.1bn in the year to the end of June 2019, government data show, amid Canberra’s concerns over foreign ownership of strategic infrastructure, personal data and even housing.
“Once the US declared China a strategic competitor, Australia really had to choose sides,” said Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to China and now a business adviser.
“Although our public rhetoric will never say it, we act and have acted since 2017 in ways in which China is a strategic competitor.”
The breakdown in Sino-Australian relations
© AFP/Getty Images
Xi Jinping makes speech to Australian parliament
Both nations sign a free trade deal boosting economic ties
US declares China a strategic competitor
Australia bans Huawei from 5G network
Canberra calls for inquiry into origins of Covid-19
China imposes tariffs on Australian barley and bans some beef imports