The arguments keep mounting and the public wonders how far it will go.

In the olden times, China was pragmatically discreet and subtle in its diplomatic choices.  “Hide your capacities and bide your time,” was Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy.  Well, judging from the last week events those days have definitely passed.

In early December Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, posted on the official Twitter government account a fake image of an Australian soldier cutting the throat of a child.

Oh yeah, Chinese diplomats and state media are exempted from the ban of US social media.  They are pretty active users, indeed.  As BBC pointed out, a research carried out by a German think-tank showed a 300% increase amongst official Chinese government Twitter accounts over the last year.

The infamous tweet came as response of the alleged war crimes committed in Afghanistan by Australian soldiers. After four years of investigations, the Australian Defence Force found out that 25 soldiers were involved in the killings of 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners between 2009 and 2013.

Canberra reacted with outrage. After only a couple of hours, Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison was on national television firmly demanding an apology. Few hours later another Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesperson, Hua Chunying, denied the excuses arguing that Australia should be better ashamed of its actions rather than China.

A ping pong of undiplomatic responses was the natural development that dominates the whole week. Also other countries such as New Zealand, France, US and UK backed up Australia, criticising Beijing behaviour.

Zhao’s tweet represents the best demonstration of China’s new assertive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. A policy that “it’s not afraid to expose the true face of the West,” as the Chinese Communist Party paper Global Times argued.  However, it is just the last of a series of recent events that deeply worsened the relation between the two nations.

Only three days before the inflammatory post came out, China hit Australian winemakers, who have been found guilty of dumping wine, with tariffs up to 200%. In the meantime, around 60 ships loaded with Australian coal have been waiting for months to dock at Chinese ports.

The Australian Dollar: Intrinsically linked to the export market

On the 12th of May, Beijing imposed an import ban against four Australian abattoirs which represent 35% of Australia’s $3.5 billion beef export trade to China. A week after, on the 18th of May, it was the time of barley imports to get smacked with a massive 80% tax. Further blocks are still expected, including goods such as sugar, lobster, coal and copper ore.

The tensions are not affecting trades only. Also journalists, students and academics got tangled up in this political quarrel.

In June Australian intelligence searched the homes of four Chinese media staff, questioning them for several hours. In September Beijing authorities reserved the same treatment for two Australian journalists, who eventually left the country under diplomatic advice. Most recently two Australian academics were banned from entering China, probably as response to Canberra’s decision of revoking the visas of two Chinese scholars due to espionage allegations.

The Australia-China relationship is unravelling at a pace that could not have been contemplated just six months ago,” wrote recently James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology in Sydney, the BBC reported.

A string of accusatory acts and foreign policy disputes have plummeted their bilateral relations at a new low. But, what’s really behind the clash?

Meet Chiara on the Team Page & See the Politics Department

By chiara castro: political editor

The beginning of the end was in the far 2017, when Australia banned foreign political donations after officials warning of growing Chinese attempts to influence Canberra’s politics. As response to this, Beijing froze diplomatic visits.

Then, on the following year, Australia was the first nation to ban Chinese tech giant Huawei from developing its 5G network on Aussie soil due to national security concerns.

Despite these divergences, their trade relationship appeared to flourish. China was good to hide its grudges for the sake of its businesses. It was, until this year.

The real turning point was in April 2020, when Australian Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, called for a global inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Australia was also the first to criticise Chinese actions in the South China Sea, labelling them as illegal. Aussie criticism flowed over other matters too, like Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan.

The Australian participation in the Quad, the informal strategic forum that include US, Japan, and India, was not an easy pill to swallow either. Chinese diplomats described the alliance as “the Asian version of NATO” aimed to destabilise Beijing influence within the Indo-Pacific area.

The Sino-Australian Perpetual Storm

Well, China is not exactly famous for passing over provocations without responding. Especially after the Coronavirus outbreak, as they have felt under global attack probably like never before.

In late April, Chinese Ambassador in Canberra, Cheng Jingye, suggested that Chinese people could boycott Australian products or tourism if they had kept pushing the enquiry.

While in November an explosive dossier listing 14 reasons of dispute against Australia was leaked, revealing the poor and unstable state of their relationship.  However, the language used to list these points suggests that China is more annoyed by how policies have been communicating rather than the regulations content. 

Is Australia going to back up eventually?

Amongst the two, Canberra is surely the one that has more to lose. China is Australia’s biggest trade partner in both exports and imports. Also Chinese students represent a big slice for Aussie economy, bringing something as $12 billion a year during normal times. Plus, there are many economic agreements that Australia simply cannot walk away from.

Even so, Mr Morrison does not seem willing to re-engage with his enemy yet. On Thursday, Australian parliament passed a new law that allows the Commonwealth to block any kind of agreement between Australians states, councils or institutions and foreign governments. Not exactly the best way to make up with Beijing.

We cannot be sure about the future moves that the two countries will opt for.  What is certain, the repercussions of the Australian-Chinese feud will reverse outside of their borders.  As the Financial Times pointed out in its 26 November editorial: “all democratic countries should watch this conflict closely and be prepared to support each other in pushing back against Chinese pressure”.  

Australia was the first country to pay the price for directly attacking China. Probably, it will not be the last. But now, we are all about to face a new challenge: a post-pandemic world. It will be essential an international cooperation among nations, including China, for the development and distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine. All this needs thoughtful strategies. There is no space for emotional quarrels anymore.