SEOUL — Soon after Australian officials called in April for a joint international investigation of the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese government ratcheted up pressure on Canberra to drop a proposal that it believed would unfairly target China.
Cheng hoped to quickly squelch the investigation. Instead, he sparked a furor — and reignited a years-long debate in Australia over how a self-described “middle power” in China’s shadow should balance its economic and other national interests.
U.S.-China friction also grows
A similar call by the Trump administration and allies for probes into the pandemic’s beginnings — including unsupported claims that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab — has both sides in attack mode.
Senior U.S. officials are exploring proposals for punishing or demanding financial compensation from China. The ideas include stripping China of its “sovereign immunity” to enable the U.S. government or coronavirus victims to sue China for damages, according to senior administration officials with knowledge of the discussions.
At the same time, however, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence knocked back the theories that the virus came from a lab, saying it was “not man-made or genetically modified.” But the statement Thursday noted that intelligence agencies were still evaluating theories linking the outbreak to the lab.
Australian officials told the Sydney Morning Herald this week that their intelligence contained no evidence linking the virus to the lab.
China has fired back at Washington with an onslaught of swipes aimed at Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, including calling him a “super-spreader” of a “political virus.”
China's 'Wolf Warrior' diplomacy
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne on Monday reiterated her call for a global inquiry and denounced China’s attempt at “economic coercion.” Hours later, Penny Wong, a top figure from the opposition Labor Party, said she hoped China was not threatening Australia, adding that the inquiry was “the right thing to do” for humanity. On Wednesday, Andrew Forrest, a mining tycoon who is Australia’s most prominent advocate of deeper relations with China, said he, too, believed it was “common sense” to conduct an investigation, although he urged Prime Minister Scott Morrison to wait a few months.
By midweek, bilateral relations had scraped their lowest point in years, as a Chinese consul general appeared unexpectedly at the Australian health minister’s news conference to argue China’s case and Australian officials accused the Chinese Embassy of breaking diplomatic protocol by leaking private conversations to the media.
The week vividly illustrated the limits of China’s economic leverage in a politically charged time, as well as the hardening public attitudes it faces around the world.
Although China’s government has for years controlled access to its vast market as both an enticement and a political cudgel, the tactic could be less effective when tourism and trade have plummeted and distrust of an increasingly assertive Communist Party is coloring domestic discourse in the United States, the European Union, Australia, Japan and South Korea, experts say.
This week, the shrill Chinese response to a proposal that garnered bipartisan support in Australia forced even the country’s influential business sector, a usually reliable advocate from Beijing’s perspective, to tread lightly.
“This ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy hasn’t made it any easier for those hoping to inject some balance into an increasingly febrile debate,” said Michael Clifton, chief executive of China Matters, an Australian policy institute, and a board member of the Australia China Business Council. “If the ambassador’s remarks were intended to sway sentiment and encourage business to call for a reversal of the government’s position, they were poorly chosen. Indeed, they have achieved precisely the opposite effect.”
The Australian government has not yet revealed details about its vision for the independent investigation or officially pitched the proposal in venues such as the United Nations or the World Health Organization executive board.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, officials such as Morrison and Payne have been critical of China’s handling of it, but they have not been as confrontational as the Trump administration or leaned as heavily into speculation that the virus was bioengineered or leaked from a Wuhan lab.
Commentary from state media, meanwhile, echoed Cheng’s view that Australia should not antagonize a crucial trade partner. Australia “is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes,” influential Global Times editor Hu Xijin wrote on Weibo, a major social media platform in China. “Sometimes you have to find a stone to rub it off.”
'Debate has shifted'
The Chinese warnings reflect an economic reality: China buys $87 billion — or 36 percent — of Australia’s annual exports, more than Japan, South Korea and the United States combined. Chinese students studying in Australian universities contribute as much as $12 billion a year in fees.
But the warnings were also a gambit: In echoes of the U.S. debate over “decoupling,” hawks in Australia have called for years for “market diversification” away from the country’s biggest trade partner, arguing that the increasingly assertive government of President Xi Jinping poses a threat. Since reaching a high in 2015 with a free-trade agreement, relations have steadily worsened over allegations of Communist Party interference and espionage in Australian politics, as well as Australia’s decision to ban Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant.
China critics seized on Cheng’s comments this week as proof of exactly why Australia should wean itself from China.
“What the ambassador and his officials have done is accelerated the narrative that China isn’t a friend, that they can’t be trusted, that they’re bullies,” said Andrew Hastie, the chairman of a parliamentary committee on intelligence and security. “It’s sweet irony.”
Just last year, Hastie said, he was ridiculed by Australian officials and business leaders for sounding the alarm about China. Today, his ideas are entering the politically mainstream, he said: “The debate has shifted.”
Since 2010, China has used its growing economic clout to devastating effect.
After a Norwegian committee awarded dissident writer Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize that year, China, the world’s largest seafood consumer, blocked salmon imports worth hundreds of millions of dollars until 2016.
In 2012, a maritime dispute with Japan badly dented Toyota and Nissan sales. After South Korea agreed to install a U.S. radar system in 2017, China informally blocked tour packages and state media fanned boycotts that some estimates say shaved 0.5 percent off South Korean gross domestic product.
In October, China blocked National Basketball Association games from television and streaming sites after the league refused to fire Houston Rockets executive Daryl Morey, who retweeted a message in support of Hong Kong protesters. As a result, the league lost a “significant” amount of money — “probably less than $400 million,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver estimated — but U.S. lawmakers urged it to not bow to Beijing.
The threat of Chinese boycotts may now seem less potent than in 2010 because “companies realize that advocating fixing things with China doesn’t look good for their political image,” said Darren Lim, an international relations scholar at Australian National University who has studied each of the boycott campaigns.
“The public is concerned about China’s rise,” Lim said. “The politics shifted in the last three years.”