Why did a Chinese newspaper call Australia a nation of ‘rascals and outlaws?’


Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, left, speaks as Tony Abbott, Australia's prime minister, looks on during a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on Tuesday, July 8, 2014. Photographer: Mark Graham/Bloomberg

In a new editorial published by the Chinese state newspaper The Global Times, Australia is described as a insecure place once "roamed by rascals and outlaws from Europe."

"Perhaps it has to boast its values to cover up its actual lack of confidence in front of Western countries," the unnamed author continues. "For many Chinese people, Australia is a good place for business, travel and higher education. That's about it."

The angry editorial appears prompted by comments made by Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, in an interview with Fairfax Media last week. Bishop, who entered office last year, said that Australia had to defending liberal values and should not be afraid of Beijing. "China doesn’t respect weakness," Bishop explained – though the response from the newspaper viewed as a mouthpiece for the Communist Party suggest perhaps it doesn't respect defiance either.

The Global Times editorial, published Monday, criticized Bishop for her "naivety," and said that her "verbal provocation made her look more like one of the often pointless 'angry youths' found in the Chinese cyber sphere than a diplomat." A Chinese version of the editorial is even more strongly worded, calling Bishop a "complete fool."

It's a difficult position for the Australian foreign minister to be in. While colonial history may have meant that Australia has tended to look towards Europe and North America for foreign allies, in recent years Australian foreign policy has begun to look more at its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region. China, the regional hegemon, is already a vital neighbor for Australia: It is Australia's largest trading partner, for instance, and one of the region's strongest military powers.

Under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (a fluent Mandarin-speaker), Australia sought to improve ties with China, but there were several snags along the way, including the arrest of Australian businessman Stern Hu and a decision made by Rudd's successor, Julia Gillard, to allow U.S. soldiers to be stationed in Australia.

Now, under the new leadership of Tony Abbott, Australia appears to be – tentatively – trying a harder line with Beijing, and is beginning to look towards Japan, the country which the Australian Prime Minister had previously described Japan as Australia's "best friend in Asia."  During a recent visit from Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, the two nations signed a number of trade agreements. From China's perspective, this comes at a provocative time: Japan has recently been reevaluating its post-war policy of pacifism, and a long-running dispute between the two nations over a chain of islands in the East China Sea has lead to renewed tensions.

Worse still, Abbot, no stranger to controversy, managed to infuriate Beijing with comments about the Japanese submariners who attacked Sydney harbor during World War II. "We admired the skill and the sense of honor that they brought to their task, although we disagreed with what they did," Abbott said during Abe's visit. China's foreign ministry later responded by saying that "anyone with a conscience will disagree with the remarks made by the Australian leader."

For the Global Times, however, Australia's embrace of Japan will be fleeting and futile. "Bishop calls for standing up to China, but what resources does she have to do so with?" the author writes. "The next day, Australian leaders will smile at China again, just as they do now to Japan."

Correction: The original version of this article said that Julia Gillard had allowed U.S. troops to be stationed in China, when it should have said Australia. This error has since been corrected.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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