How Australia-China tensions have hit 'lowest ebb in decades'

A Chinese officer outside the Australian Embassy in Beijing in July
The tensions between Australia and China have felt like part of a geopolitical thriller lately. Nobody knows exactly where the story is going or how it will end.
"Relations between Australia and China are dissolving at a rate that six months ago could not be considered," wrote scientist James Laurenceson recently.
Take the escalation for the past few weeks alone. The Chinese authorities confirmed that Cheng Lei, an Australian national and high profile host of the English-language Chinese broadcaster CGTN, was arrested on suspicion of a national security threat.
Shortly afterwards, the last two correspondents who worked for Australian media in China were brought home on the advice of diplomats. It played out amazingly.
On the eve of ABC reporter Bill Birtles' hastily planned departure from Beijing, seven Chinese police officers arrived on his doorstep in the middle of the night. A similar visit was made to Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review in Shanghai.
(L-R) Cheng Lei remains detained in China while Bill Birtles and Mike Smith were brought home
Everyone fled to Australian diplomatic missions but was prevented from leaving China until they were asked about vague "national security" issues. Mr Birtles said he felt like a "peasant in a diplomatic dispute".
The day after the couple arrived, Chinese state media reported that Australian intelligence agents questioned several Chinese journalists in June and confiscated their equipment "in violation of legitimate rights."
Australian media reported that the incident was linked to an investigation by intelligence officials and police into alleged foreign interference. This was followed by raids in June on the offices of New South Wales MP Shaoquett Moselmane, a staunch supporter of Beijing who later said he would not be examined in person.
Most recently, two Australian academics were banned from entering China - one move that was argued was in retaliation for Canberra for revoking two Chinese scholars' visas.
At any other point in time, one of these incidents might be enough to keep the headlines going for some time - but they happened in quick succession.
At the breakneck speed, even close observers scratched their heads.
The backstory
Anger and distrust between countries has been bubbling under the surface for years.
A turning point came in 2017 after the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (Asio) warned of growing Chinese attempts to influence decision-making in Canberra. Donations from Chinese business people to local politicians also came to light.
At the end of the year, Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull announced laws to curb foreign interference. Beijing responded by freezing diplomatic visits.
In 2018, Australia became the first country to publicly prohibit Chinese tech giant Huawei from participating in its 5G network for reasons of national security. There have been numerous other hot spots since then.
Despite all the turmoil, Australia's trading relationship with its largest customer largely flourished.
China may be angry with Australia, but its ever-expanding economy remained hungry for Australian natural resources. Iron ore, coal and liquefied natural gas continued to flow into China, and Chinese tourists and students and huge export income continued to flow into Australia.
More about Australia and China:
How dependent is Australia on its top customers?
Why China's rise exposes Australian vulnerabilities
"I feel censored by Chinese students"
While many economic benefits remain, things changed dramatically in 2020.
"Politically, we are at the lowest level since diplomatic relations were established in 1972," said Professor Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology in Sydney.
The real trigger this year was Australia, which called for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19, which was first discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested that the World Health Organization needed tough new "weapons inspector" powers.
Home Secretary Peter Dutton quoted comments from the US State Department that there were "records" showing how the virus had spread - but stated that he had not seen them. Chinese diplomats responded in very undiplomatic language, saying that Mr. Dutton must have been directed to "cooperate with the US in its propaganda war".
Professor Laurenceson told the BBC that Beijing's anger was directed not only at political rhetoric but also at Australia's stance on the global balance of power.
"China sees Australia making its decision to compete with America in a geological competition," he said.
In late April, China's ambassador to Canberra, Cheng Jingye, threatened that the Chinese could boycott Australian products.
"When the mood just keeps getting worse ... Maybe the common people say 'why should we drink Australian wine? Do you eat Australian beef?'" He told the Australian Financial Review.
Not long after, China imposed an 80.5% tariff on Australian barley, suspended some Australian beef imports, and launched an anti-dumping probe on Australian wine imports.
Asia Pacific allies known as "The Quad": India, Japan, Australia and the US meet in Tokyo last week
Beijing also warned students and tourists not to go to Australia, citing racist incidents faced with Covid-19.
Australian sentiment towards Beijing has also deteriorated in public opinion. This is particularly evident in China's attempts to arm itself with sanctions against sectors of the Australian economy.
"These bullying tactics have exacerbated attitudes in Australia," said Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute think tank. This year, a poll was conducted that found only 23% of Australians trust that China is responsible in the world.
Ms. Kassam added that every time China tried to "harass" Australia, the voices calling for more assertive policies on Beijing became louder.
Mr Morrison has used harsh language at times, insisting that Australia not "switch" its values ​​or respond to coercion.
His government has openly criticized the new security law that China has imposed on Hong Kong and has provided a safe haven for many Hong Kong students and graduates who are already in Australia. It has also suspended its extradition deal with Hong Kong.
Beijing's anger over Canberra's recent positions - particularly US stance - is not surprising, but the speed and severity of the anger has surprised even the experts.
"I am surprised that for three years we had a firewall between the political and economic sides of the relationship," said Professor Laurenceson. "Now, within five months, China has taken or discussed measures against barley, beef, students, tourists and wine."
Although Australia's borders remain closed, Beijing has issued additional travel warnings
"What makes the nervousness worse at the moment is that it is not clear where the ground is."
Ms. Kassam said it had become increasingly clear that the sharpness was "structural" and not "could be remedied by better diplomacy".
"In this globalized world where China is a great rising power, it would never be possible," she said, noting Australia's US alliance.
Both sides know that high tensions go hand in hand with higher stakes. Last week, one of China's top diplomats called for an end to the "confrontation and abusive language" between Australia and China.
Fu Ying, China's former ambassador to Australia and an influential figure in Beijing, called for better communication because the two trading partners needed each other.
The meaning of that particular statement lay not just in what it said but in who it said it to: Michael Smith of the Australian Financial Review, one of the two journalists who had rushed out of China.
Even amid tensions and the global recession triggered by the pandemic, countries have acted at a constant pace.
"The economic side of the relationship remains a strength," said Professor Laurenceson. He expected it to coexist with the political relationship "uncomfortably in the future".
"You won't find two countries with more complementary production structures than Australia and China. Put simply, China wants what Australia produces, and they deeply want it."
China is conducting two surveys of Australian wine exports
This remains a complicated balancing act for both countries.
For Ms. Kassam, the separation of trade and political tension is a myth that was erased when both sides tightened their rhetoric.
"For 10 years [or so] ... Australia and China were able to uphold the fiction that the interdependence of their economies might exist in an area separate from their political tensions. It was of mutual interest to uphold that fiction for that period . ""
She added that it is difficult to see that stability will return soon and that the relationship will be determined by tension and political conflict in the future.
"I am very worried about this," said Ms. Kassam. "I am concerned about the Australians in China and whether they might be targeted in the declining bilateral relationship."

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