China has imposed restrictions on the import of a range of Australian goods, including barley, wine, lobsters, beef, timber and coal.
Some restrictions were initially said to be due to contamination, or because they were “dumped” (sold below the cost of production). But it now seems clear that China’s imposition of economic sanctions on Australia is the result of its government perceiving the Australian government’s pattern of behaviour as hostile.
A Chinese diplomat gave Jonathon Kearsley, a Nine network journalist, a list of 14 grievances, including: Australia’s ban on Huawei's participation in the 5G roll-out; “foreign interference” laws, which are viewed as targeting China; the call for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, which was seen as “siding with the US anti-China campaign”; criticism of China’s actions in the South China Sea; and allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang.
Some of these complaints are valid.
Australia does discriminate against Chinese companies: its banning of Huawei from the 5G network, ostensibly on security grounds, is the best known example.
Other Chinese companies have been banned from investing in commercial enterprises where there is no plausible security pretext. A Chinese company has been banned from buying Lion Dairy and Drinks, which sells milk, yoghurt and fruit juice from a Japanese company.
The federal government has also accused China of “dumping” as a pretext for restricting the import of steel, aluminium and paper.
Canberra also has a double standard on human rights issues: it rightly criticises China’s oppression of the Uighurs and its repression of pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, but there is no similar denunciation of the mass incarceration of Black people in the United States or the police murders that have prompted the Black Lives Matter movement.
Australia’s racist treatment of First Nations peoples and its cruelty towards people seeking asylum is more evidence of its hypocrisy.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s confected outrage about a fake tweet from a Chinese official over the murder of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian special forces troops is designed to distract attention from these war crimes. His call for an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 as US President Donald Trump talked up the “China virus” was aimed at blaming China for the disease.
Meanwhile, Morrison refuses to comment on the US government’s negligence over the pandemic.
Morrison's tactic of blaming China has led to a rise in racist attacks on people of Chinese background or appearance. These include physical assaults, verbal abuse and racist graffiti (including on Chinese restaurants), as well as the McCarthyite demand by Liberal Senator Eric Abetz for three Chinese Australians appearing in a Senate committee to prove their loyalty to Australia by denouncing the Communist Party of China.
Australia’s laws against “foreign influence” are almost entirely directed against China, even though US influence here is much greater: US company News Corp controls the majority of Australia’s print media.
The “foreign influence” laws have led to police raids, including on a NSW MP who advocated policies seen as favourable to China. Yet, nobody has been raided for advocating policies favourable to the US.
These double standards are a result of Australia’s relationship with the US. This alliance has led Australia to participate in wars including in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, Australia has aligned itself with the US in its trade war with China.
Given that China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, this is foolish. In recent years, China has been Australia’s biggest export market, buying coal, iron ore and agricultural products, as well as education and tourism services.
Meanwhile, Australia buys many goods manufactured in China. Since the 1980s, transnational corporations (TNCs) based in rich countries have shifted much of their manufacturing to China, taking advantage of the low wages and weak environmental regulations. This shift by rich country governments was a mechanism to boost the profits of their TNCs. It also weakened the trade union movement.
In recent years, Chinese workers have won pay rises through strike action, while protests over polluted air and water have led to some action (albeit insufficient) by the Chinese government to limit pollution. But, production costs in China remain lower than in the US and Australia.
Another new development has been the rise of Chinese TNCs, such as Huawei, which are becoming rivals to US and other rich country corporations. This has alarmed the US ruling class and is a major reason for the growing conflict between the US and China.
The relocation of manufacturing has left the rich countries dependent on China for many necessary goods, including some medical supplies.
If it wished to, China could cut off exports to Australia. Up to now it has not done so. But if the conflict intensifies, this cannot be ruled out.
The US has a long history of imposing economic sanctions on governments it doesn’t like: Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and North Korea are recent examples. China’s economic sanctions on Australia are less extreme, but could be stepped up.
A recognition of this vulnerability has promoted talk of the need to revive Australia’s manufacturing industry. However, a more common theme is the need to diversify Australia’s trade to countries other than China.
There is unlikely to be a major revival of manufacturing unless the federal government invests heavily in it. Public investment in some areas, such as renewable energy, would be very desirable.
But complete self-reliance is not practical: trade is necessary, including with China. By siding with the US in its economic war with China, the Australian government is harming this trade. It is another reason to oppose Australia’s alliance with the US (in addition to its role in involving the country in endless wars and occupations).
[Chris Slee is a member of the Socialist Alliance national council.]