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China-Australia: Australia has only itself to blame

It may be an uncomfortable truth, but Australia has monumentally mishandled its relationship with China. If the future with our largest trading partner is now uncertain, we overwhelmingly have ourselves to blame.

China is Australia’s largest trading partner – it has been sheer luck that Australia has had the commodities that a booming China wants and needs. So, if Australia is to alienate its largest trading partner, there is a Plan B, right? Wrong. There is no Plan B.

As the world’s second great power – and well on its way to becoming the first – China expects respect, or at least diplomatic behavior, from the countries with which it is close. Australia’s treatment of China has shown a casual disregard while, on occasion, being gratuitously offensive.

The senior Chinese official Tweeting an Australian soldier appearing to be about to murder an Afghani child is simply an unsubtle reminder that we, too, are vulnerable. The Tweet implies that Australian soldiers are being investigated for the murder of two 14 year old boys, among others. It is uncomfortable to have another country air our linen, which even we acknowledge is dirty.

More to the point, China has repeatedly warned Australia that there would be repercussions if Australia continued with its public commentary, which it finds just as offensive. Indeed, lest there be any confusion on this point, China recently released a list of 14 points of Australia’s offensive behavior.

Among the more gratuitous of that commentary was Australia leading on an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19, for which we were told there would be consequences. It was silly grandstanding by Australia, given that it was public knowledge that the virus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan and was overwhelmingly likely to have been transmitted by animals.

It is not clear whether our prime minister was trying to please the US president, who initiated that call, or whether he thought there might be some domestic political points to score. But the short term satisfaction that might come from the act has been swamped by negative trade blowback.

And then Government minister Senator Eric Abetz’ gratuitous likening of China to Nazi Germany was not only a crude example of Godwin’s Law but was at least as offensive to China as the portrayal of a murdering Australian soldier is to us.

Australia’s foreign interference laws, accusations of cyber attacks and disallowing contracts on national security grounds have also been deeply offensive to China. The lost economic opportunities have rankled, but the public airing of these processes have each stung our large regional neighbor.

This is not to say that Australia should not protect its economic and strategic interests, but that it should do so understanding those interests are both longer term as well as immediate, and how we handle them is as important as the underlying decisions. The list of Australian ‘offences’ to China is long, but the underlying message in all of them is that Australia’s handling of its relationship with China has been, at best, ham-fisted.

Many Australian political leaders seem to think that unvarnished commentary is okay because it reflects Australian frankness. More accurately, such commentary is just inept.

Over half a century ago Donald Horne noted that ‘Australia is a lucky country run by second rate people who share its luck’. As a warning, he also noted that luck would not last.

It is, perhaps, now time that Australia stopped relying on luck and started to expect better than second rate leadership. If not, we will continue to stumble into crises very much of our own making.