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China sharply ramps up trade conflict with Australia over political grievances

A worker sorts imported Australian wine in Nantong, in eastern China's Jiangsu province, on Nov. 27, 2020. (AFP/Getty Images)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — China's withering trade war with Australia is escalating sharply, prompting several of Australia's allies to express support for a country that is heavily reliant on its giant Asian trading partner and vulnerable to political pressure.

Beijing on Friday announced new tariffs of up to 200 percent on Australian wine, which the country’s trade minister said could make business “unviable” for a $3 billion industry that sends 40 percent of its exports to China. The move adds wine to a growing list of Australian exports that have been targeted by Chinese authorities this year. Other products that have faced trade barriers include coal, timber, seafood and barley, totaling about $20 billion.

The feud between Australia and its largest trading partner, now in its sixth month, has drawn in unexpected casualties: dozens of workers on ships carrying Australian coal have been seeking help after being stranded for months in Chinese ports because they have been denied permission to offload their cargo.

Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said Friday that the Chinese moves, taken together, appear not to be driven by legitimate regulatory concerns and “give rise to the perception that these actions are being undertaken . . . in response to some other factors.”

“Doing so is completely incompatible with the commitments that China has given through the China-Australia free trade agreement and through the World Trade Organization,” Birmingham said in his toughest comments to date, while stopping short of threatening a formal complaint with international trade authorities. “It’s incompatible with a rules-based trading system,” he added.

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China’s Commerce Ministry has provided technical reasons for holding up shipments of Australian grains and coal and has accused Australia of subsidizing wine to sell at unfairly low prices. But Chinese officials have on multiple occasions acknowledged that the roots of bilateral frictions were essentially political, and state media and Chinese academics have lambasted Australia for what they see as double-dealing: enjoying profits from economic relations with China while assisting in Washington’s anti-China geopolitical agenda.

In a move that drew criticism from the White House and British lawmakers, Chinese officials met with Australian media last week to publicize 14 grievances with their government. They include Australia’s public statements about Taiwan’s status, Hong Kong’s autonomy and the state of human rights in China; its calls for an independent review of the coronavirus pandemic’s origins in Wuhan; its treatment of Huawei and Chinese state journalists in Australia; negative reporting about China in the Australian media; and research on China being conducted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank founded by the government.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian followed up by saying that Australian authorities made “repeated, wrong acts and remarks on issues concerning China’s core interests” and asked them to take “concrete actions to correct their mistakes.”

“The actions against wine remove any remaining doubt this is anything other than Beijing using trade to punish Australia for political decisions,” said James Laurenceson, the director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.

The acrimony is rooted in distrust, Laurenceson said. Twenty years ago, Australian leaders assured their Chinese counterparts that Canberra would never break its alliance with Washington but that it would not join forces with the United States to target China. China today “no longer believes Australia is living up to that promise,” he said.

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In recent months, the Chinese government has reacted particularly harshly to joint actions from the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network that comprises the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand. After the alliance issued joint statements on China’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s opposition lawmakers, media and protest leaders last week, Zhao warned that China might “gouge and blind” the Five Eyes nations for what he said was interference in China’s affairs and undermining of its sovereignty.

Days later, Zhao asked Australia not to be “ideologically prejudiced” and to accept the differences between the countries’ political systems.

As Chinese trade pressure on Australia mounted this week, some voices in Washington and London called for more coordinated response, although few specific proposals have emerged.

Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign policy committee in the British House of Commons, told Australian television that Britain should “stand side by side” with Australia. The Financial Times said in an editorial that “without such coordination, Beijing will be encouraged in its efforts to divide and rule, inflicting real political and economic damage on democratic countries.”

During a tour of Asia this week, President Trump’s national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, also weighed in, warning Beijing that its retribution against Australia “really turns off both Democrats and Republicans.”

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Addressing the prospect of a change in U.S. administration despite Trump’s refusal to concede the election, O’Brien told reporters he was traveling through the Pacific to let countries know “we’re going to be here, we’ve got your back, and we’re not going to be pushed out of the Indo-Pacific region.”

Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said China often asks the West to tolerate and accept its one-party system of governance, particularly in the past two years as the Trump administration declared the Communist Party an existential threat to the international liberal order.

But some Chinese positions, including grievances with negative stories in Australian media and demands for friendlier coverage, betrayed China’s own ideological intolerance, McGregor said.

“China’s complaints go well beyond their well-known red lines, like Taiwan, to complaints about the sort of outspoken criticism that will always be part of any democratic society,” he said. “It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast between Xi Jinping’s recent speeches about China as an open trading nation and the naked economic intimidation of another country over political differences.”

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Australia’s coronavirus disputes with China are growing. So are debates over its deep economic ties to Beijing.

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