China’s Attack on Australia is About America

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The escalating crisis in Sino-Australian relations prompts a new piece.  Foreign Policy publishes my latest under the title “Biden’s First Foreign Policy Crisis is Already Here.” I approve of the title. Not everything is about America, and I often spend my time trying to show how the moving force behind any given international event has nothing to do with Washington. This case is different. Here the American element in China’s decision-making is greater then many analyses, especially those written in Australia, would have you think.

Sino-American competition is the setting in which Beijing’s “punishment “ of Australia has taken place. Beijing’s actions do not make sense except in reference to the PRC’s larger strategic goals vis-à-vis the United States. This is true both in the larger strategic sense of what Beijing is ultimately hoping to achieve with this attack and in the narrower tactics of timing and target. As I note

Beijing’s actions were also a direct challenge to the American alliance system. The Chinese specifically timed their economic coercion campaign to begin when America was caught up in election dissensions. They aim to savage Australia while the United States, the one world power with the economic heft to fight back against Chinese bullying, is too distracted with internal squabbles to care about communist plots half a world away. They count on a Biden administration being forced to put China problems on the back burner while it handles domestic crises first. The Chinese will then be positioned to remind that world that one of Australia’s errors was to “side with the United States.” The costs of American alliance will be painfully clear, while the benefits of American friendship will be demonstrated to be more a matter of rhetoric than reality. This clever strategy benefits from a structural disadvantage faced by the world’s democracies when they try to stand up against Chinese aggression. The democracies of Europe, North America, Oceania, and Asia are bound together through shared history and values. The combined economic, technological, and military strength—what the Chinese often call “comprehensive national power”—of these countries far outweighs that of the PRC. However, international relations are usually a bilateral affair. When lined up with China one-to-one, none of these countries save the United States has the “comprehensive national power” needed to go toe-to-toe with Beijing…. Economic coercion of this sort is not usually aimed at changing the behavior of the government targeted—at least, not immediately. Like economic sanctions, punitive boycotts, and trade embargos are perceived as an attack on the honor and strength of both the targeted government and their people. Leaders targeted by economic coercion do not want to appear weak in the face of foreign aggression. They do not back down in the face of Chinese pressure. Thus the Nobel committee did not withdraw their award, the Japanese did not denationalize their islands, and the South Koreans did not send the THAAD batteries packing. But Beijing did not expect them to. Attacks like these are were never intended to change “offensive” policies in Oslo, Tokyo, or Seoul. They were intended to prevent future offenses. Future threats carry greater weight when backed by a history of punishments delivered.[1]

Why is it important to understand that Beijing’s moves are not just an attempt to punish the Australians for their ingratitude, but also a move to undermine the larger American alliance system (and it’s anti-PRC valence)? In Washington, there is a real danger that Americans will treat Chinese maneuvers with the same indifference that they treated Beijing’s attack on South Korea in 2017, perceiving all this brouhaha as just another set of feuding foreigners with no real relationship to America’s own fortunes and future. But it is equally important for the Australians to understand the larger picture. They help answer some of the questions Australians are now asking themselves. Take, for example, these comments by Paul Kelly in The Australian:

We have no national interest in a bullying China deciding to punish Australia more stridently than its treatment of other countries. If sustained, that would constitute a failure of national leadership and it would have grave consequences for the Liberal Party. Australia needs to beware of a situation where its Asian neighbours, while facing tensions with China, can preserve a working relationship that is denied Australia…. China is punishing Australia because successive governments have taken decisions, either in substance or in presentation, that have hurt China….It’s easy to construct the list since China has just done it — banning Huawei from the 5G network (a move of global import), foreign interference legislation (another path-breaking move), raids on Chinese journalists, blocking foreign investment proposals based upon revised priorities, calling for an independent international inquiry into COVID-19 (a global diplomatic issue), seeking to torpedo Victorian government participation in the Belt and Road, legislation to review institutional agreements with foreign governments, allegations against China in relation to cyber attacks, criticism of China’s governing party by MPs, and critical statements about Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea, among others…. The collective impact, however, is to cast Australia, in China’s eyes, as a global leader in prosecuting the case against China. There is no escape from this reality and perception. Did Australia choose this option or did it emerge by oversight or accident? Was it intended? …Did Australia at any point make an assessment of the collective consequences? Or has each decision been taken and prosecuted as valid in its own right? Was there an expectation that China as an emerging, assertive and sensitive great power would tolerate Australia’s serial decisions with impunity? All nations have been required to revise their China policies but has any other middle power taken anything like this range of decisions that Australia has taken? [2]

Australia’s role in the global push-back against the Chinese communists is on the sharper side of this push-back, but Australia’s actions are only marginally more damaging to Beijing’s interests than those taken by many of its partners and allies. There is something manifestly unfair about Beijing’s list of complaints—or there would be, if it were all about the country’s bilateral relationship. Consider: Australia was joined by 122 other countries in calling for an independent investigation in the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. The latest Australian condemnation of Party tyranny in Hong Kong was voiced in concert with New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom. An even larger chorus has echoed Australia’s denunciation of the ethnic gulags of Xinjiang. Its journalists and think tankers are hardly more anti-Chinese that those found in Japan, India, or the rest of the Anglosphere, and pale next to the venom summoned by their Czech counterparts. Japan and India have also joined in counter-China military exercises and dialogs. While Australia has voiced opposition to the PRC’s South China Sea claims, other nations, such as France and Great Britain, have actually conducted FONOPS in those waters. There are now a dozen countries banning Huawei 5G infrastructure. And the unique items on the list (like Beijing’s anger that Canberra has spiked BRI agreements with Australian states) are somewhat ridiculous on the face of it, as China does not normally demand diplomatic relations with sub-national units, and (“one country two systems” aside) certainly doesn’t allow other countries to exercise the same privilege with Jiangsu or Tibet.

Australia was not targeted because its offenses are uniquely terrible. These offenses are instead representative of what is happening in many countries across the globe, and which might soon happen in even more countries absent drastic action on Beijing’s part.  Australia was targeted because somebody had to be targeted, and Australia has several industries whose asymmetric relationship with Chinese consumers makes them painless targets. The Chinese want to demonstrate the cost of going along with the American program. It matters a great deal to individual wine producers whether Beijing decides to make Australia or Canada its object lesson. But from the moment the American swing against the PRC began four years ago, economic coercion against a smaller ally was somewhat inevitable. Given its vulnerability to Chinese coercion, there was always a strong chance that Australia would be the one chosen to receive that blow.

In their discussions with the Biden administration, the Australians should not be shy about pointing all of this out. They are absorbing body blows that are aimed at the United States. Australia deserves more than platitudes about friendship in return. But from the perspective of the alliance system as a whole, more important than succoring allied wounds post-hoc will be deterring future acts of economic coercion. Several commentators, such as Anthony Vinci in The Atlantic, and Jordan Scnieder and Yun Jiang in Foreign Policy, have suggested bet America create something like an economic NATO in response. [3] This treaty would require member states to apply punitive tariffs and restrictions in response to Chinese attacks on one of its members. I endorse this notion in my piece as I believe but hard-nosed deterrence is really the only way to keep the Chinese from playing this They must know that they can be hurt as easily as they give hurt. This is an inherently transnational endeavor. The collective economies of the “free world” tower over China. If they can work in concert there is hope for keeping China in line. But you can read my full thoughts on this over at Foreign Policy


To read more of my writing on American and Chinese relations in the Asia-Pacific, see my posts “Why I Fear for Taiwan,” “The Aussies Who Doubt Us,” “Losing Taiwan Means Losing Japan,” “The World That China Wants,” “At What Point is Defending Japan No Longer Worth It?” and “Taiwan’s Past Matters Less than Taiwan’s Futureof interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Tanner Greer, “Biden’s First Foreign Policy Crisis is Already Here,” Foreign Policy (11 December 2020).

 [2] Paul Kelly, “Trust must be rebuilt in Australia-China relationship,” The Australian (21 November 2020).

[3] Yun Jiang and Jordan Schneider, “The United States Needs More Wine to Stand Up to Chinese Bullying,” Foreign Policy (10 December 2020); Anthony Vinci, “How to Stop China From Imposing its Values,” The Atlantic (2 August 2020).

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What can the US realistically offer Australia that is worth the consequences of opposition to China? Not just now, but for the next 100 years. Tightly coordinated economic alliances are a pipe dream

The day will come when China is not just ~1x the US economic power. GDP will mostly likely be 1.5-2x the US by mid century (same goes for military power, with lag). Is a political history and culture of deeply resolute opposition to China going to serve Australia well in 30 years?

The opposition to facing these realities is predicated on the assumption that Chinese behaviour will be substantially different, and more harmful to other countries, than the US' has been as superpower. Where is the evidence for that?

I'm starting to come to this view as well.

The CCP have undoubtedly behaved abominably now, in the past, and presumably in the future. But how much of this behaviour can be separated from the geopolitical and internal environment that are structural to China and how much is intrinsic to the CCP and can be projected outwards when or if they become hegemonic?

The PRC's ability to project hard power is always going to be constrained by the geopolitical realities of having Russia, Japan, India, and in a couple of decades time Vietnam on its borders. It doesn't have and will never have the same geostrategic freedom that the US has for the last century and a half.

I just don't see the PRC or for that matter other political formulations of China that may come to pass posing an existential threat to the US or the greater Western sphere militarily or ideologically if Western civilisation is all that its cracked up to be.

With respect to Australia, I think there's some truth to what you write that someone was going to end up being an example but there is also something more visceral going on. When the Australian government took the lead in pushing the Covid inquiry many within the Australian foreign policy space was surprised, I think I read somewhere someone being polite in describing the actions as 'weird'.

I'm not going to speculate on conspiracy but from a pragmatic POV it didn't make a lot of sense in terms of national interest and PM Morrison is no where as experienced/informed about China as Kudd and Turnbull were.

From the PRC pov I think they felt AU was being ungrateful. I use 'felt' deliberately, I don't believe it was purely a rational calculation. They see the historical and cultural links between AU and US and the recent orientation in Aussie foreign policy and decided to burn bridges. I don't see the relationship ever going back. If anything I think is start of a real decoupling.