• John McDonnell

U.S. plays big brother on Australia’s trade relations with China

At the virtual Quad leaders meeting that was held last weekend, Joe Biden promised Scott Morrison that he would not relax sanctions against China until that country dropped its trade bans and tariffs against Australian imports.

The commitment to Australia was confirmed by the deputy secretary of state for Asia-Pacific Dr Kurt Campbell in an interview with 9Media’s Peter Hartcher.

Dr Campbell told Hartcher:

“We have made clear [to China] that the US is not prepared to improve relations in a bilateral and separate context at the same time that a close and dear ally is being subjected to a form of economic coercion.”

Dr Campbell confirmed President Biden’s commitment to Scott Morrison.

“President Biden was very direct with Prime Minister Morrison that we stood together on this,” said Dr Campbell, the architect of the summit, who was in the room with Mr Biden during the meeting.

“So, we’ve indicated both to Australia and China at the highest levels that we are fully aware of what’s going on and we are not prepared to take substantial steps to improve relations until those policies are addressed and a more normal interplay between Canberra and Beijing is established.”

As Hartcher commented, it is the first known intervention of any nation to take substantive steps in support of Australia in its confrontation with Beijing. The regime of President Xi Jinping has applied trade bans and tariffs on at least $20 billion worth of Australian exports to China.

The question is, will the Chinese take it seriously. On the weekend a senior Chinese official tweeted “It seems ‘America first’ has been replaced by ‘Australia first’.

The Chinese response to the Biden ‘tough guy’ approach was summed up by the Chinese government mouthpiece ‘The Global Times’:

“I believe China and the US had a really good quarrel during their Alaska talks on Friday.

First, the Chinese delegation helped the Chinese public vent the anger that had accumulated for several years. The US has been too aggressive and arrogant in recent years. It believes it is almighty, pointing fingers at the ever-stronger China and doing everything to suppress China. Some US politicians have been badmouthing China. They are asking for insults. Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and director of the Office of the Central Leading Group for Foreign Affairs, and Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi refuted the US’ arrogant attacks in public. This is unprecedented since China and the US established diplomatic relations in 1979. Yang told the US that Chinese people do not buy it. It really speaks the mind of the Chinese public.

Second, Yang and Wang have taught a good lesson to the extreme US politicians about the kind of country China really is. These people believe that China will collapse as soon as it is pressured or coerced, and they have always clamored that the US policy is not tough enough. Today we will let them know how tough China’s diplomacy is. This is a correction of the starting point of the US elites’ understanding of China. They need to be more respectful when dealing with China. They want to speak to China from a position of strength? Then they had better properly match their strength with wishes. They should see China’s strength clearly. Our national strength is more than enough to support our independent attitude toward the US, to support our policies on Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan and defend China’s national security and continued development.

Third, the Chinese delegation has shown the few US allies how China is dealing with the US. China has publicly refuted the US, and for those US lackeys who try to bite China, please behave. Don’t expect China to be polite to them if they always provoke China.

Fourth, after such a public quarrel, I believe the two sides’ subsequent dialogue will be more rational and pragmatic. Haven’t the two delegations withstood the impact of a public quarrel as soon as they met? I think the two societies have quickly adapted to this way of meeting between China and the US. The two sides have had two rounds of talks and there is still a third one. It has already been good to keep talking. The two countries and the world’s public opinion were very pessimistic about the Alaska talks’ prospects. After the quarrel, the expectations are even lower. However, it is really possible that the final result could turn out to be better than expected.”

It is clear that the Chinese expect to make progress in the bilateral relationship with the US. It is equally clear that Australia should not hold its breath waiting for concessions from its biggest export market.

Nevertheless, trade minister, Dan Tehan said Australians should be comforted by the fact that the US had Australia’s back on trade matters.

Speaking to reporters in Canberra, Mr Tehan expressed his gratitude to the Biden administration and said Australia wanted to resolve trade disputes with China.

"I think all Australians should be reassured by the fact that the Americans have come out and said that they've got our back, and they won't leave us alone on the playing field."

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of Chinese culture inherent in this brinkmanship. If Xi Jinping were to make concessions in a confrontational environment, he would lose face and be weakened as a leader. He will only yield in a context where China gets the respect it believes it deserves. This will require admissions that it has the right to control affairs in Hong Kong and a winding back of the confrontation over Taiwan.