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SYDNEY – Nearly 10 years ago, Australia thought it was heading for a beautiful friendship with China: It opened its economy to Beijing, wanted to teach Mandarin in schools, and invited the Chinese president to speak to parliament.
Now it’s all over.
These days, Australia is buying nuclear-powered submarines to ward off Beijing, barricading the country from key markets and cracking down on its relentless attempts to force Australian politicians and the media.
In part, the head-spinning shift reflects increasing global awareness of China’s increasingly pugilistic behavior.
But for Chinese President Xi Jinping, it also provides a remarkable example of how his relentless attempts to control the economic and cultural climate abroad can quickly boom – even in a country susceptible to Beijing’s overtures. Instead of bullying Australia into submission, Xi’s “Wolf Warrior” tactics simply pushed Australia back into the traditional military connection, with the United States and Britain cost Beijing a potentially valuable partner in the region.
Here’s how things got sour so quickly.
2012: Australia predicts ‘Asian century’
When Xi took control of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, the Australian government was at the center of a geostrategic hub.
In its 2012 Asian White Paper on the Asian Century, Canberra set national goals, which included teaching Asian languages such as Mandarin in schools, strengthening trade relations with Beijing, and opening up the economy to Asia.
The White Paper was part of Australia’s broader movement away from its colonial Commonwealth roots and position, which United States Vice President of Asia-Pacific and against performing a role as a regional power in itself.
Canberra, of course, turned to Beijing, the biggest player in the region – and then, as now, its best trading partner — for a landmark free trade agreement and relationship reset.
Australia and China concluded negotiations on the Trade Pact in November 2014, inviting Xi to a joint sitting of Australia’s Parliament – an honor usually reserved for US commanders.
“We should increase mutual understanding and be sincere and credible partners,” Xi told parliament, adding that China and Australia “were not burdened by historical problems between us … We have every reason to go beyond a commercial partnership to become strategic partners who have a common vision and pursue common goals. ”
Some believed it was the beginning of a new era between the two countries. Spoiler alert: It was not.
2013: Xi wants ‘dominant position’
While Australia turned to China, Beijing orchestrated its own focal point: Xi had held a completely different address to his countrymen before his speech to the Australian Parliament.
In January 2013, shortly after he became chairman of the Communist Party and just months before he became Chinese president, Xi made plans to make China a global superpower through economic and technological power.
“We must concentrate our efforts on improving our own affairs and continually expanding our comprehensive national power,” Xi told his Communist Party comrades in talk. The focus would be on “building a socialism that is better than capitalism and laying the foundations for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.”
That meant going for the Western alliance – with Australia as the weakest link. So while publicly promising sincerity and trust, Xi secretly sought to pressure the island nation.
First came the cyber attacks, which Chinese state-affiliated hackers went after Australian Parliament, country Bureau of Meteorology, that Australian National University and many others.
Then come attacks on Australia’s Chinese-language mediawith reports of coercion, bullying and intimidation in any place that dares to leave the line of the Communist Party.
Reports emerged that China had reached deep into the Australian political establishment and sought to manage policy in favor of China. Studies found that Beijing-affiliated companies were largest sources of donations with foreign ties, and the money went to both sides of the political spectrum.
Economic intrusion rattled in Australian politics. In 2017, it was Australian Labor Party senator Sam Dastyari forced to resign over his ties to Chinese Communist Party donors.
Beijing also sought control and influence in obvious ways.
Later in 2017, China’s security chief warned Labor leadership the party would risk losing support among Australia’s Chinese diaspora community if it did not support an extradition agreement Beijing wanted.
And over the past 18 months, China has hit Australia with a series of trade restrictions and tariffs in response to Canberra’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic originating from the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Meanwhile, China also built its military power in the region, made great demands on the South China Sea and pressed Hong Kong and Taiwan – and moved south towards Australia.
The combined effect took from the entire “wolf warrior” book, named after a popular Chinese action movie.
And it backfired.
2021: Breakup completed
Australia, which had once extended Beijing a hand of friendship, is now back in the arms of its old staff.
Earlier in September, Canberra announced a comprehensive security partnership with the United States and the United Kingdom. The pact, called the AUKUS, comes amid a broader Australian attempt to turn its economy away from China.
“The level of Chinese economic coercion and cyber espionage against Australia was once unimaginable, so our security agencies have learned to consider the worst possible options,” said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University and author of “Indo-Pacific Empire.”
AUKUS, he said, “is an adjustment made in Beijing.”
Under the new Anglo-American alliance, the United States, Britain, and Australia have agreed to share advanced technologies with each other, including artificial intelligence, cyber security, quantum computing, subsea systems, and long-range strike capabilities. Australia also abandoned a submarine deal with France worth more than € 50 billion to acquire US nuclear-powered submarines instead.
“It is a remarkable breakdown in Australian – China relations and a massive deterioration in Australia’s security prospects that has led to this result,” said Michael Shoebridge, director of the influential Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which receives funding from the Australian and other governments.
Xi “caused a trifecta of change” that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago, Shoebridge said: A shift in Australian policy that considered nuclear-powered technology too sensitive and expensive as late as 2016; and a shift in US and UK policy that only allowed the two nations to share nuclear technology with each other until recently.
“It’s a pretty radical, remarkable shift in the policy of three nations in just five and a few years,” Shoebridge added.
The change actually happened in 2016, when Canberra blocked bids from two Chinese companies to buy electricity distributor Ausgrid citing national safety issues. Two years later, Australia completely banned Chinese tech giant Huawei from its 5G network.
Now is the federal government considering stripping The Chinese company Landbridge of its 99-year lease for the strategically crucial Port of Darwin — just six years after the regional government awarded the contract to shock over then-US President Barack Obama.
U.S. Marines regularly rotate through Darwin for training exercises, and Australian Defense Secretary Peter Dutton earlier this year proposed to expand their number and forms a joint training brigade with Australian troops.
Dutton warned Canberra needs to be prepared for what lurks “on or below the horizon” amid growing tensions with China.
Where is the EU?
When Australia tore up its submarine deal with France, President Emmanuel Macron’s instinct was to blame for Canberra and Washington.
But what neither Macron – nor the EU leadership – mentioned was the economic and security threat that China has posed to Australia in recent years.
It is not that EU officials were unaware of Beijing’s coercive tactics against Canberra. Australian Trade Minister Dan Tehan, who visited Brussels earlier this year at a time when trade talks were still well under way, admitted that Canberra was keen to have closer trade relations with the EU while facing intense economic pressure from Beijing.
“What I can say is, from an Australian point of view, what we have done is stick to our principles,” Tehan told POLITICO in April. “If it leads to consequences where we may encounter disputes with certain countries, then … we will first extinguish our sovereignty.”
France is now threatening to cut off EU-Australia trade talks, accusing Canberra of being an unreliable partner in the wake of AUKUS.
“The complete absence in the current media coverage of whether the seriousness of the Australian security problems was fully appreciated within French circles is symptomatic of a central European deficiency,” said Alessio Patalano, professor of war at King’s College London.
It is an omission that longtime observers find clear.
“China’s systemic challenge enormously outweighs relations between France and Australia,” said ASPI’s Shoebridge.
Did Xi still win?
The fact that many European leaders quickly turned Australia and the United States in the wake of the AUKUS announcement has some wondering whether Xi eventually won despite the loss of Australia’s goodwill.
According to Shoebridge, that is a simplified view. He argues that once the dust has settled, the EU, including France, will return to the transatlantic table.
“I don’t think it will play much in China’s favor,” Shoebridge said. “What will keep running [the West] together are China’s actions under Xi. ”
Shoebridge pointed research showing the collapse of the public perception of China around the world.
“Now Xi has to face an Australia with accelerating military capabilities, up to and including nuclear submarines, created because of the direction he is taking China,” he said.
Zoya Sheftalovich reported from Sydney. Stuart Lau reported from Brussels.
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