A month ago, China accused the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, of trying to “stoke domestic nationalism” after demanding an apology from the Chinese Government for a tweet by a spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The tweet consisted of a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. China refused to apologize for the image and said that Australia was attempting to steer attention away from the atrocities committed by Australian military personnel in Afghanistan. This is just another example of the quickly unraveling ties between Australia and China that is being exasperated by stubborn nationalism.
Tension between China and Australia have been on the rise for the past few years. Australia was the first country to ban Huawei, a giant Chinese tech company, from its 5G networks as well as block ten different investment deals across multiple industries. Tensions worsened further earlier last year when Australia called for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 which originated in Wuhan, China. Australian criticism of Chinese actions in Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea has also angered the government of China. In response, China curbed Australian beef imports and imposed very high tariffs on Australian goods like barley and wine. It is expected to raise tariffs on other goods including lobster, sugar, copper ore, and coal.
This poses a large problem for Australia since about 35% of their trade is with China, while only 4% of China’s commerce relies on Australia. An all out trade war could cost Australia 6% of the country’s total GDP. Einar Tangen, who is an analyst based in Beijing as well as an economic advisor to the Chinese government stated that “Australia is playing above its head by trying to politically pressure China when it’s dependent on China for its economy.” Despite this coercion, Australia is unwilling to back down. According to the Australian Prime Minister, Australia will not reverse its policies after the Chinese embassy shared a list of grievances with the media in Australia, telling the news that “I can assure you, we will always be Australia, act in our interests and in accordance with our values.”
These tensions have caused anti-Chinese sentiments to spread throughout the country. According to one survey of Asian-Australians, since April there were 386 racist incidents against Asians including, but not limited to: spitting, physical intimidation, and abuse. The survey also found that 90% of incidents were not reported to the authorities and the majority of the acts were by strangers in public places. The Australian government condemns the incidents and says China is spreading propaganda stating “Australians rightly deplore racism. Knowing this, the Chinese Communist Party uses accusations of racism in an attempt to divide us and deflect criticism of their own conduct.” Many other countries, including the United States, have reported a rise in racist attacks against people of Asian descent, but proportionally speaking Australia has a higher rate of racist incidents than the United States. A group of anti-China politicians in Australia has formed as well. They call themselves “Wolverines” after the resistance group of high school kids in the movie Red Dawn. Wolverines are calling for a national pushback in Australia against China and the Chinese Communist Party. What is causing this anti-China movement in Australia that even has backing by politicians?
Some scholars speculate that it stems from Australia’s “White Australia Policy” roots. After independence in 1901, policies were put in place to keep Australia ethnically British and white. The policy consisted of 3 acts that were all passed in 1901: the Immigration Restriction Act, Pacific Island Labourers Act and the Post and Telegraph Act. The most infamous part of the Immigration Restriction Act was a dictation test where people wanting to immigrate to Australia had to be able to write 50 words in any European language chosen by the officers. This was very often manipulated to the point where overseas shipping companies would not give tickets to people likely to fail the test. The White Australia policy was ended in 1958, but it’s nationalistic legacy still remains. Australia’s nationalism is partly to blame for its tensions and poor relationship with China. If the Australian government does nothing to stop attacks on Asian-Australians or keeps refusing to back down from its strict policies, the effects for Australia could be detrimental. Australia seems like an aggressive hound locking eyes with a wolf.