The author is a senior researcher at the Lowy Institute and former head of the Financial Times Beijing bureau.
As Prime Minister, Johnson promoted “Australia-style” trade deals and immigration reforms for the UK. It is doubtful whether he aspired to emulate Australia in another area – its relations with China. Beijing disagrees with the United States, India, Canada, and Japan, among other countries. But none have felt their anger like Australia, which has seen once strong political and trade ties with China fall apart dramatically.
Beijing hardly bother to hide that its sanctions, targeting up to $ 19 billion in Australian exports, are a punishment for political disagreements. Canberra’s complaints are dismissed as “Playing the victim”. Does the same fate await “Global Britain” as it seeks new markets after Brexit? China warned relations go in this direction, and UK national security experts seem to agree.
Britain’s defense review has been remarkably blunt, calling China a “systemic challenge” to British values and prosperity and “the greatest state-based threat” to the country’s economic security. But the UK may be on the verge of finding out what Australia already knows, that changing Chinese policy is not easy, and given Beijing’s sensitivities, the price to pay is steep. .
The UK will have to get used to the regular threats, its education market and even any export that China can source elsewhere. A bilateral trade deal will be delayed, a real cost when the The Chinese economy represents about a third of global growth.
There will be a lot of ritual abuse in Chinese state media. Just as Australia is represented as a oversized kangaroo Mercilessly leaping after the United States, an image of the United Kingdom as a swollen lion desperately yearning for imperial glories will fill Chinese minds. Beijing will remind the UK that it will be on the wrong side of history if it sticks to its democratic partners. As the slogan members of the popular press and the politburo in Beijing say, “The East is on the rise and the West is in decline.”
Despite the UK’s toughening line on China, Johnson declared himself last month for being “fervently Sinophile” and committed to good relations regardless of the strange political difficulty. He can be forgiven for his inconsistency. If Australia is a guide, this is a stage political leaders go through until they realize that, even if they want it both ways, Beijing will not allow it.
As in the case of Britain, Australia’s relations with China have collapsed in the way Ernest Hemingway describes go bankrupt – gradually, then suddenly. Many of the same issues abound: Huawei’s ban in China from new telecommunications networks, condemnation of Beijing’s dismantling of democracy in Hong Kong, and the Uyghur re-education camps in Xinjiang.
Australia’s relations completely collapsed after Canberra called for an independent investigation in the coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan. Given that the virus has killed millions of people and wreaked havoc on much of the global economy, the case for an investigation was unassailable. Canberra, however, has handled the problem poorly.
By throwing it at China and pushing for an investigation on its own, Australia has been left in the open. Beijing extremists began to distribute the punishment. Yet inept diplomacy and the Chinese sanctions that followed proved to be a good learning time for Australia – and for its friends and allies abroad.
Beijing has imposed trade sanctions on many countries over the years, banning salmon from Norway and tropical fruit from the Philippines, slowing the export of rare earths to Japan and punishing South Korea in 2016-2017 for installing a US anti-missile shield.
But the scale of Australian sanctions is unprecedented – around 13 sectors in all, or more than 10 percent of Australian exports. No more waiting behind the scenes, once the tourism and education sectors reopen after the pandemic.
These measures are difficult to counter or mitigate their impact as a political weapon, especially when the trade interests of friendly countries benefit. American farmers and Canadian miners stepped in to fill the void left by Australian crops and coal. French, Chilean and South African winemakers rushed to catch up with the market for Shiraz and Chardonnay.
The world may be divided into two geopolitical camps aligned with the United States and China. But it doesn’t work in two separate business areas.
The next, more difficult step is economic cooperation between democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia to help the nations chosen by Beijing for punishment. Kurt Campbell, who heads Indo-Pacific politics at the United States National Security Council, said this month that Washington told Beijing there would be no improvement in ties as long as an ally is under “economic constraint”.
Beijing denounces such coordination. A party paper blasted at Five eyes intelligence partnership, calling it a “white supremacist axis.” But China’s behavior is pushing friends and allies together, as the United States made clear in a diplomatic confrontation in Alaska Friday. Australia appreciates their support. So also, soon, the United Kingdom.