Australia’s ambassador in Beijing has labelled China’s campaign of economic punishment against Australia “vindictive” as the diplomatic relationship between the two countries remains stuck in a rut.
On Thursday night, officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed that Australian trade with China had plummeted across almost all industries, with overall figures propped up largely by Beijing’s strong demand for iron ore.
In the past nine months, China’s government has targeted several Australian industries – including barley, coal, timber and lobsters – as it tries to force Canberra to give ground on a wide range of disputes.
No new sanctions have been unveiled in 2021, although the wine industry believes tariffs on Australian wine first introduced last year will be locked in – and possibly increased – within days.
On Thursday, Australia’s ambassador to China Graham Fletcher delivered a caustic assessment of China’s behaviour while speaking to Australian businesses via a video link from Beijing.
“I’m not sure China realises the damage that is occurring both in Australia and internationally,” Mr Fletcher told the Australian China Business Council.
“It’s been exposed as quite unreliable as a trading partner and even vindictive.”
The unusually blunt comments from Mr Fletcher were first reported by The Australian newspaper.
The ambassador also warned Australian businesses that rely too heavily on the Chinese market could be left exposed to campaigns of economic coercion directed by the government.
“You’ve just got to imagine that, unexpectedly, you may lose your China market for no good reason other than that Beijing has decided to send a message to Canberra,” he said.
“That’s a very unwelcome situation, but I think frankly that’s where we are at.”
He also said the escalating pattern of trade punishment had generated “sympathy” for Australia and hardened attitudes towards China around the globe.
“We hear a lot of sympathy and support quietly from a lot of countries you might not necessarily expect around the world who can see what’s going on, and say, ‘Look, we don’t want to live in a world either where China is behaving like this and is able to set the agenda’,” he said.
The comments came as top US leaders vow to intensify competition with Beijing in the wake of the acrimonious Anchorage meeting.
Overnight, US President Joe Biden said the contest between the two powers was symbolic of a larger issue – “autocracy or democracy, because that is what is at stake.”
“This is a battle between the utility of democracy in the 21st century and autocracies,” he said.
“We got to prove democracy works.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also lashed China on Thursday, saying its “blatant economic coercion of Australia” was an example of the increasingly urgent threat posed by resurgent authoritarian regimes.