Australia takes the lead on China threat

Anchor Cheng Lei, a Chinese-Australian on China's state-run CCTV English Channel, has been detained by Chinese authorities for more than two weeks, foreign (non-South Korean) media reported on Aug. 31. On the same day, the Australian government issued a statement saying, "We received a call from the Chinese government that they had detained Cheng Lei on the 14th of August, and on the 27th, an Australian official interviewed Cheng Lei in the detention facility by video." However, a reason was not giver for her detention. Cheng Lei was born in 1975 in China. She immigrated with her parents when she was 10 and acquired Australian citizenship. After graduating from college in 1994, she worked as a certified public accountant, and came to China in 2000 to work for an Australian company.

It was in 2002 that Chung-Lei entered her position at CCTV. At first, she worked as a reporter and anchor while gaining recognition. The news of Cheng Lei's detention received extraordinary attention from Chinese diplomats. This is because it is one of the events that shows the increasingly worsening relationship between China and Australia. Moreover, even the timing was interesting. In August, the Australian government was moving strongly to keep the Chinese government and Chinese companies in check. Foreign (non-South Korean) media reported on August 27th that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is pushing for legislation that would allow the federal government to veto or nullify contracts signed independently with foreign governments.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Source: Yonhap News)

COVID-19: Australia and China Face-off The move was interpreted as an attempt to prevent the “One Belt, One Road” national initiative pushed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, from being carried out in Australia. In 2018, Australia's Victoria state government agreed with China to participate in “One Belt, One Road” communication projects. Controversy erupted in the same year when this action ran counter to the Australian government's decision to exclude Huawei from its 5G network project. In May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Victoria's decision to participate. He even warned that he would cut ties with Australia if it had a negative impact on the U.S., sparking a strong backlash from Australian politics.

On August 25, the Australian government did not approve a plan to acquire Mengniu, China's largest dairy manufacturer. Mengniu agreed last November to buy Ryan Derry & Drink, which was run by Japan's Kirin Holdings, for $470 million. However, the Australian government has continued to oppose the takeover plan. In June, the Australian government revised the Foreign Investment Act to have the final approval rights for any foreign investment in Australia. It was a legitimate move following the revision of the law that thwarted Mengniu's takeover. The Chung-Lei detention, which erupted amid the Australian government's move to keep China in check, is hardly a mere coincidence.

The start of the bilateral conflict dates back to April 22. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a news conference in Canberra that "the international investigation (to reveal the origin of COVID-19) is important. We need to investigate the origin of the outbreak transparently through appropriate and independent investigations." At that time, the number of COVID-19 patients was soaring in the U.S. U.S. President Donald Trump has strongly stated "China's responsibility" (for COVID-19), pressing allies to join him. However, traditional U.S. allies such as Europe, Japan and South Korea have taken cautious steps. This is because these allies were reluctant to engage in diplomatic friction with China.

Against this backdrop, Australia has stepped up to the China threat. In a telephone conversation with President Trump, Morrison stressed the improvement of the World Health Organization. This was in line with President Trump's actions, which he accused of being "China-centric" and ordered the suspension of funding. In response, the Chinese government protested, saying it was trying to interfere with China's internal affairs. China also threatened to stop importing Australian beef and wine if Australia continues to attack China. However, the Australian government did not give in. At the World Health Conference held in mid-May, Australia called for an "investigation into China's responsibility and role in the origin of COVID-19.”

As Australia took the lead in hitting China. China launched a massive offensive against Australia. Shortly after the World Health Conference, the import of Australian beef was partially suspended. China has accounted for two-thirds of Australian beef exports. It also imposed tariffs of up to 80 percent on Australian barley. On September 1, imports were banned altogether. The front line was expanded in June. On June 5, the Chinese government announced that it would refrain from traveling to Australia, saying that racism against Chinese people is increasing in Australia. Four days later, the Chinese government warned of the danger of studying in Australia for the same reason. This was no less than a measure to prevent Chinese people from going to Australia.

China's all-out retaliation reminds us (South Koreans) of economic retaliation against South Korea over the deployment of THAAD in the past. In fact, China is Australia's largest trading partner and importer of goods. China accounted for one-third of Australia's total exports between 2018 and 1919. Second-ranked Japan accounted for far fewer than 13 percent, while the United States came in fourth with only 5 percent. Last year 1.4 million Chinese tourists visited Australia. The number of Chinese students studying in Australia has reached 2.6 million. More than 250,000 jobs were created in Australia thanks to Chinese students rushing into Australia.

(Left to Right ) Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and U.S. President Donald Trump hold a joint press conference at the White House on September 20, 2019. (Source: Yonhap News).

Morrison, you've been playing politics with Trump. Australia remained calm due to China's grumbling. "There has been a recent increase in cyber-attacks by state-backed organizations against the Australian government and businesses," Morrison said on June 19. The Australian government did not name a specific country, but it was a reference aimed at China. A few days later, Australian intelligence raided the homes and offices of a prominent pro-China politician in Australia's political circles. On July 9, Prime Minister Morrison said, "I will help the Hong Kong people who want to start a new life in Australia to avoid the Hong Kong Security Law." On the 23rd of the same month, the Australian government sent an official document denying China's sovereignty over the South China Sea to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

It is not just the responsibility for COVID-19 that has led to the worsening of bilateral relations. China considers Australia as acting as an agent for the United States. Over the past few years, Australia has participated in various military exercises with the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific Line, a U.S. policy to block China. Australia also ruled out Huawei from the 5G network project in line with U.S. sanctions. Australia has joined an international statement concerned with the Hong Kong Security Law and is helping the Hong Kong people seek political asylum. China's offensive is not only to change Australia's attitude, but also to send a message to others who might cross China.

In addition, Australian Prime Minister Morrison's political orientation has played a part. In the past, Australia had raised concerns about its economic dependence, but it carried out diplomacy with China with pragmatism at the forefront. In particular, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was from the Liberal Party, but he took the lead in making appeasement with China. On the other hand, Morrison is one of the most hard-line conservatives in the ruling Liberal Party. Since taking power in 2018, he has been on the same political path with President Trump. It is no coincidence that he actively sympathized with the China's responsibility for COVID-19. Therefore, the conflict between China and Australia is likely to become more serious in the future.