The Morrison government’s belligerence against China has produced an escalating dispute. China has now imposed tariffs and bans on Australian exports of barley (worth $600 million a year), beef, and launched an investigation into wine.
China was taking 30 per cent of Australia’s farm exports before the measures.
Then in September the last two journalists for Australian news outlets in China, Bill Birtles and Mike Smith, were forced to leave the country.
The tensions are the result of the Australian government’s enthusiastic backing for the US’s Cold War against China.
According to the mainstream media, China’s actions are high-handed bullying by an authoritarian power. But the Australian government’s belligerence is barely mentioned.
China was angered by Morrison’s push for an international inquiry into the outbreak of COVID-19, including China’s handling of it, demanding “weapons inspector” powers and the inquiry’s separation from the World Health Organisation (WHO). In the end after much diplomatic back and forwards, it was agreed that the WHO will run the inquiry.
ASIO secretly raided four Chinese journalists in June, and two Chinese academics were banned from Australia in August.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg weighed in with a ban, in August, on a Chinese company buying Lion Dairy and Drinks for $600 million, saying the sale was not in the “national interest”.
Australia has effectively frozen out Chinese telco Huawei on the basis that a Chinese company having access to “critical infrastructure” like phones and computers was not in the “national interest”. But where do milk, butter, cheese and yoghurt fit into the risk matrix?
Even on trade, Australia has applied double standards, imposing “draconian steel, aluminium and chemical duties” on Chinese imports, and gaining the, “inglorious status as one of the world’s largest users of anti-dumping measures at the World Trade Organisation”, Angus Grigg wrote in the Financial Review.
Morrison is also proposing a new law allowing the Federal government to cancel any international trade deal done by State Premiers. This is aimed at deals with China, such as Victoria’s decision to sign up to its Belt and Road Initiative.
Even Colin Barnett, former Liberal Premier of WA, opposed Morrison’s meddling, arguing states have been doing similar overseas deals for years and overriding them would be damaging.
Indeed, in June iron ore from WA accounted for fully 46 per cent of Australia’s export earnings. Neither Australia nor China has wanted to tinker with trade bans on that. Australian yearly earnings in iron ore total $63 billion. So BHP, Fortescue and Rio Tinto profits remain sky high.
In late May Paul Bongiorno wrote in The Saturday Paper comparing the Cold War with Russia to today’s new emerging one with China, “The Soviet Union was never a powerful actor in the economies of the West, let alone Australia. It makes it so much more complicated trying to advance our economic security and strategic security at the same time.”
While Morrison’s anti-China trajectory may well be costly for sections of the Australian ruling class and certain industries, the government is prepared to accept this.
China looms large on both the Australian and US governments’ horizon since its economic power could outstrip the US, and at some point its military power as well.
Since the fall of the Russian empire, in 1989-91, the US’s strategic objective has been, in the words of a 1992 Pentagon document, “to prevent the re-emergence… of any potential future global competitor.”
But given Morrison’s continuous anti-China policy, Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s visit to Washington in July for AUSMIN talks was interesting to watch.
The Australian reported that the meeting had established a new, “top-secret defence co-operation framework to counter Chinese military aggression”.
Yet Payne pointedly distanced herself from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s diatribe against the Chinese Communist Party at a press conference, declaring,
“The secretary’s positions are his own… we make our own decisions, our own judgments in the Australian national interests.”
Payne’s support for US was nuanced. It doesn’t fit into Australian left nationalist narrative of Australia being a US puppet. In no way were they— “All the way with Donald J.”
Australia has own separate economic interests and will pursue its own policies. Australia’s rulers are committed to the US alliance for their own reasons, in order to project Australian power in the south Pacific.
The government is also seeking other alliances against China, including “the Quad” between Australia, India, Japan and the US.
Morrison’s moves against China are a result of the imperialist competition that is built into capitalism. That rivalry threatens workers everywhere—American, Chinese and Australian—with destruction. Protecting ourselves from the threat of war starts with getting rid of Australian war mongering rulers like Morrison.
By Tom Orsag