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Economic Engagement and diplomacy in the era of the wolf warrior: Australia-China Relations

by Katja Theodorakis, Senior Programme Coordinator for Research and Analysis (Foreign/Security Policy)

This piece was originally published as the introduction to the latest edition of the 'KAS AusPacific Digital Snapshot' - a potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot provides an analysis of selected media and think tank articles, intended to offer a panorama overview of the debate in these countries. The original version contains hyperlinks.

“The 'wolf warrior' diplomacy we are seeing in Australia is becoming replicated around the world. This is no longer a simple trade or economic relationship. Australia has been alive to China as a strategic actor for many years. But many in Europe, and especially in the UK, are only just waking up to this fact, and realising that China is more than an economic play.”

Dave Sharma, Australian federal MP and former diplomat, quoted in the Financial Times


In Australia, the relationship with China has again been at the forefront of political debates over the past fortnight - interestingly, with some possible pointers for other Western countries as to what measures Beijing is willing to take against Western governments recalcitrant towards Chinese 'authority'. This is a salient and timely issue for the EU and its member states as European leaders are increasingly forced to carve out a more decisive stance on an increasingly assertive China. One analyst even called this a 'paradigm shift' in relations between the European Union and China. This is also highlighted in the warning of the EU's foreign affairs Minister Josep Borrell when e addressed a gathering of German ambassadors this week. Warning of a possible impending power shift from West to East, he admonished that for the EU the "pressure to choose sides is growing" and called for "collective discipline" amongst its 27 member states, to avoid being instrumentalized by China in their dilemma to reconcile "interests and values" and the evolution of Australia's relations with China are an illustrative case. Up until now Australia has maintained a focus on burgeoning economic relations with China while at the same time protecting its security interests, through for example upgraded anti-espionage laws and the ban of 'high-risk' vendors from its 5G network. This bipartisan approach at the federal level also included the ongoing prioritization of the ANZUS security alliance with the US at all costs, in order to guarantee a strong US strategic presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

But in reality, alongside the clear-eyed strategic measures against Chinese political influence, the prevalence of strong corporate interests resulted in a more laissez-faire approach amongst business leaders, state governments and in the higher education sector. Accordingly, while US-China trade rivalries (often referred to as even a 'war') have been a feature of the international political landscape for some time, Australia pursued a less confrontational course: a two-prongued approach that sought to separate geopolitical and national security interests from trade relations. Whether this was sustainable in the long-term anyways is debatable. As the former Australian ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, recently highlighted, "once the US declared China a strategic competitor, Australia really had to choose sides". And it indeed appears the 'hedging' arrangement has run its course.

Australia is finding itself now confronted with the clout of Chinese economic coercion, in response to its questioning of China's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and rejection of Chinese claims the virus had been imported by the US. As international criticism of China was increasing - in particular accusations that Beijing had botched and covered up its response to the outbreak of the virus, suppressing reports by local authorities about COVID-19’s capacity for human-to-human transmission - China started launching an aggressive diplomatic campaign to reclaim its reputation. Chinese envoys to Western capitals were engaging in direct verbal assaults via twitter and other social media channels, including the threat of sanctions.

This has been dubbed 'Wolf Warrior' diplomacy, named after the 2017 uber-patriotic Chinese action/propaganda film of the same name in which Chinese special forces save the world from 'Western villains'. With a tagline that says "Anyone who offends China will be killed no matter how far the target is", the movie is said to reflect Beijing's new global agenda. This diplomatic shift has been described in China's government-controlled Global Times as follows:

"The days when China can be put in a submissive position are long gone. China's rising status in the world, requires it to safeguard its national interests in an unequivocal way. After all, what's behind China's perceived "Wolf Warrior" style diplomacy is the changing strengths of China and the West. When the West falls short of its ability to uphold its interests, it can only resort to a hysterical hooligan style diplomacy in an attempt to maintain its waning dignity. As Western diplomats fall into disgrace, they are getting a taste of China's "Wolf Warrior" diplomacy."

Australia's call for an international probe into the origins and spread of the global health crisis called into question China's projected image as an ethical, responsible global actor benevolantly dispensing aid across the globe. In other words, its ability to project soft power - or so it was at least perceived by the Chinese regime. In return, Beijing launched a 'wolf warrior diplomacy' campaign and accused Australia of joining the US in launching “a political campaign” against it. It moreover responded by acting on week-long threats of economic sanctions in the agricultural and higher education sector, leaving the Australian government fprced to look at avenues for diversification.

This has led to rifts in Australia's traditionally bipartisan approach towards foreign affairs, with State premiers chastising Canberra's 'hard line' and Labor opposition MPs questioning PM Morrison’s close relationship with Mr Trump. Moreover, it emerged over the past week that the state government of Victoria is pursueing the next steps of its controversial 'Belt and Road' cooperation deal with the Chinese government, despite widespread criticism by the federal government.

As debates continue in Europe, especially in light of the upcoming EU-China summit in September and Germany's take over of the 6 month term of the EU-presidency in July, Australia's course amongst recent developments may provide some food for thought about political realism and the need for diversification.


Weekly Snapshot

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Katja Theodorakis