China’s Pandemic-Fueled Standoff with Australia

by 24USATVMay 20, 2020, 9 a.m. 21
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Australia is the new frontline for China’s use of disinformation and economic coercion amidst COVID-19. Following Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s call for an independent review into the origins and spread of the pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party propaganda machine spun into overdrive. Officials in Beijing and at diplomatic posts around Australia moved to discredit the request by accusing Canberra of doing Washington’s bidding and politicizing the health crisis. China’s state-directed media outlets amplified these false narratives in articles designed to validate Beijing’s position. Even China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, weighed in, lending his voice to the disinformation campaign and warning of a consumer boycott if Canberra continued pressing for a review. When Australian political leaders pushed back, the Chinese embassy doubled down on efforts to control the spin by leaking its version of a confidential discussion between Cheng and the secretary of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Within a few weeks, Beijing banned beef imports from four Australian producers and imposed steep tariffs on Australian barley. While Australian commentators have largely rallied around the government, a mix of dissenting and disingenuous voices have attacked Canberra’s policy and called for a refocus on improving Australia-China ties.

China’s attempted coercion of Australia is part of two concerning trends. It’s an acute case of Beijing’s “coronavirus information offensive” which aims to deflect criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s handling of the pandemic, present China as a responsible global health player, and stoke uncertainty about key facts — in this case, Australia’s foreign policy independence. It is also part of Beijing’s longstanding campaign to pressure Canberra against adopting policies at odds with China’s interests and to drive a wedge through the United States-Australia alliance. Beijing’s tools of choice in both pursuits consist of disinformation, economic leverage, and targeted influence operations to shape and constrain Canberra’s policy choices. Although China’s standoff with Australia draws from a familiar playbook, it marks an escalation on past behavior insofar as the intensity, directness, and combination of disinformation and economic coercion are concerned. China may have overplayed its hand on this occasion, but the standoff is nonetheless complicating Australian policy and offers important lessons for how Canberra, Washington, and other powers should deal with similar tactics in the future.

Whenever Australia takes a stand on issues that China opposes, Beijing responds with a volley of disinformation. The reason is clear: Canberra’s good international standing gives its voice a high degree of legitimacy, lending credibility to the policy positions and principles it espouses. This is dangerous for Beijing, as it can encourage others to follow and makes it hard to attribute diplomatic friction to purely U.S.-China dynamics. Beijing has therefore honed several tactics to discredit Canberra — characterizing Australia as America’s “lackey,” accusing Australia of politicizing issues, and presenting China as the responsible party injured by Australia’s troublemaking. It’s using all three in the COVID-19 standoff.

The spread of disinformation began on April 20, a day after Payne called for an independent review. In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, dismissed her comments as “inconsistent with the facts,” charging Australia with “dancing to the tune of a certain country to hype up the situation.” Later that day, an article entitled “Australia Joins U.S. Bandwagon Over Virus Policy” appeared in Global Times, arguing that Canberra was “copying the U.S.” on the review and lacked “an independent foreign policy.” Similar articles were published over the following weeks in Global Times and CGTN, while Chinese embassy officials and media commentators depicted Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s own concerns about transparency as “yielding to Washington’s pressure.” All were covered in the Australian media. Crucially, on April 27, Ambassador Cheng reiterated the “lackey” narrative, accusing Canberra of “teaming up with…forces in Washington to launch a political campaign against China” — even though the government’s only supporter at this time was Australia’s Labor Party opposition.

Presenting Australia as beholden to the United States is China’s sharpest disinformation tool. It plays on domestic sensitivities about Australia’s foreign policy independence as an American ally to undermine support for policies that overlap with American interests. This tactic operates by stoking uncertainty. As no one can actually prove that Canberra isn’t acting at Washington’s behest, ordinary Australians don’t know what to believe when they encounter the China’s “lackey” narrative in domestic media reports, or echoed by prominent pro-Beijing commentators. Further complicating matters, there’s always a useful fact to create a good story. It’s true, for instance, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated “there’ll be a time to review precisely what happened” in Wuhan before Australia’s call for an inquiry. It’s also true that Dutton referred to U.S. State Department comments about the spread of COVID-19 when he called for transparency. But these facts don’t even tenuously support the claim that Canberra was following “instructions from Washington.” By contrast, the fact that Australian intelligence officials leaked their incredulity over the Trump administration’s theory that COVID-19 originated in a Chinese laboratory overwhelmingly suggests that Canberra is not in cahoots with Washington. But disinformation is hard to quell. As the narrative about Canberra’s deference to Washington builds — at times legitimately — on different issues over time, it’s amplified by Chinese propaganda to sow public opposition to the U.S.-Australia alliance.

China’s two other tactics for discrediting Australia feed into this process by highlighting the allegedly destabilizing consequences of Canberra’s activism. One is to accuse Australia of inflaming international problems by politicizing them. It’s a classic disinformation refrain that’s been widely used in Chinese media outlets and official statements during the COVID-19 standoff. As China’s Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson said of Australia: “With the pandemic still spreading across the world…it is highly irresponsible to resort to politically-motivated suspicion and accusation.” Ambassador Cheng went further, arguing that Canberra’s push for an inquiry could “undermine global efforts to fight against this pandemic” by exacerbating “suspicion” and “division.”

Beijing’s third false narrative is designed to portray China as the aggrieved victim of Australia’s troublemaking. Immediately after Prime Minister Scott Morrison began seeking international support for an inquiry, Global Times published an op-ed stating: “While the rest of the world is actively joining forces…, the Morrison administration is spearheading this malicious campaign to frame and incriminate China.” State-backed media outlets and officials made similar comments, with the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson alleging: “China stands ready to work with other countries” whereas “the Australian side’s erroneous words and deeds recently have upset the Chinese people.” Taken together, these misleading talking points filter into the Australian media to create doubts about the merits of Canberra’s position.

Beijing’s tactics of discreditation aren’t new. The same narratives have been used to attack Canberra’s stance on the South China Sea, foreign interference legislation, the 5G ban on Huawei, and the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. What’s different with COVID-19 is that the intensity of the Chinese Community Party’s disinformation campaign against Australia has escalated in-step with the “Wolf Warrior” turn in Chinese diplomacy. One aspect of this is the directness of official accusations. Beyond traditional charges of “irresponsible remarks,” “deep-rooted prejudice,” and a “Cold War mentality,” inflammatory accusations are being made about Canberra’s purported acquiescence to Washington. These include the embassy’s fiery claims that Australian politicians are “cooperat[ing] with the U.S. in its propaganda war against China” which “exposes the former’s ignorance and bigotry as well as their lack of independence in serving orders from others.” Another aspect of this escalation is the way Ambassador Cheng so prominently spread disinformation himself. It’s customary for Beijing’s official representative to propagate the official line on contentious issues. But his direct allegations about Australia’s active role in “pandering to…Washington,” “hyping up the blame game,” and making a “political move to please a certain country” signify a sharp uptick in the use of his office to influence Australia’s domestic debate.

By far the most serious escalation, however, was Cheng’s threat of a consumer boycott — and Beijing’s subsequent follow through. In a highly publicized interview, the ambassador warned that Chinese tourists and students “would think ‘Why should we go to such a country that is not so friendly to China?’” and noted “maybe ordinary people will say, ‘Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?’” Within a few weeks, China had banned beef exports from four Australian abattoirs and announced an 80 per cent tariff on barley. These threats and acts of economic coercion are striking for three reasons. First, they’re overt. While Beijing has used boycotts to pressure Canberra before — Australian wine and coal were held up at Chinese ports in 2018 and 2019; and rumors circulated in 2017 about consumer boycott over Canberra’s foreign interference legislation — China has never made its threats publicly. Second, they’re calibrated to be credible. Unlike iron ore exports, which China can’t easily source elsewhere, threats against tourism, students, wine, and beef can be realized through regulations, customs, and other interventions. And with a combined value of AU$18.2 billion or 13.3 percent of Australian exports to China, a boycott on these four sectors could hold a serious chunk of the economy at risk. Indeed, the beef ban alone will wipe about AU$1 billion from the economy. Between beef and barley, China is targeting two of Australia’s most politically powerful agricultural sectors. Finally, the way all this fits together marks the first time that Beijing has combined economic threats with a targeted disinformation campaign against Australia — suggesting a real step-up in China’s strategic use of these tactics.

China’s assertiveness is also evident in the way officials spun disinformation in the wake of economic threats. In a stunning breach of diplomatic protocol to shape public opinion, the Chinese embassy leaked its version of a private conversation between Cheng and Australia’s top diplomat, Frances Adamson. Its statement rejected concerns about economic coercion and alleged “Secretary Adamson tried her best to defend Australia’s proposal about the independent review” but “admitted it is not the time to commence the review now.” Meanwhile, China’s disinformation agents produced a mix of denial, indignation, and threat reiteration. In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry argued that Ambassador Cheng’s comments were about the possible actions of Chinese people, dismissing claims of coercion as “simply baseless.” By contrast, Global Times criticized Canberra’s “all-out crusade against China” while its editor tweeted “Chinese companies will definitely reduce economic cooperation with Australia, and the number of Chinese students & visitors going to Australia will also decrease.” A similar disinformation drive occurred after Beijing’s barley and beef threats went public. While the Foreign Ministry alleged China’s planned tariffs were a “normal trade remedy investigation,” Global Times ran a series of articles denying any COVID-19 connection, warning Australia of “much bigger problems than barley if it continues to take unfriendly action,” and contending that “Australia’s worries over potential tariffs underline the anxiety surrounding deteriorating China-Australia relations.” This proliferation of mixed messages and threats appears designed to achieve Beijing’s overriding objective: to create uncertainty among ordinary Australians about the reality of economic coercion and to blame escalating Australia-China tensions on Canberra’s pursuit of a American-directed call for a COVID-19 review.

It is too soon to judge whether China’s COVID-19 offensive will succeed in discrediting Australian policy or the U.S.-Australia alliance. On one hand, Beijing’s brazen use of censure and threats has harmed its public image in Australia. By ditching the plausible deniability that Beijing has previously cultivated to keep Australians guessing over whether or not economic coercion and disinformation are taking place, Chinese officials have exposed their willingness to strongarm Canberra and aggressively work to influence policy. This is likely to accelerate souring perceptions of China among the Australian public. Furthermore, as most Australians view an independent review into COVID-19 as a legitimate, sensible, and unremarkable way to improve global pandemic preparedness, the government is likely to enjoy ongoing public support and bipartisan political backing for the initiative — irrespective of Chinese disinformation.

On the other hand, China’s strident reaction to Australia’s proposal may succeed in exacerbating discord between Australia and the United States. Prominent Australian commentators have echoed Chinese accusations that Canberra is sailing too close to Washington in its call for an inquiry, warning that the Australia-China relationship will suffer as a result. While some, like Kerry Stokes and Andrew Forrest, are reflexive critics of Australia’s toughening China policy from the business community; others, like Hugh White, worry about Chinese coercion, but have well-rehearsed disagreements with Canberra on policy. The key point is this: If China hadn’t gone on the disinformation offensive to play-up the issue, there would be less attention on the bilateral standoff and less oxygen for Australian-made arguments that the alliance is to blame. China’s Wolf Warrior tactics, however clumsy, may have advanced its interests in this respect. Crucially, as the “lackey” narrative filters into public debate, it will inevitably persuade some Australians and harm attitudes towards U.S.-Australia relations — even if individuals simultaneously hold negative views of China.

So, what can Australia and other countries learn from this standoff to manage future rounds of coordinated disinformation and economic coercion? By far Australia’s strongest line of defense was the early bipartisan support for Canberra’s position. Within 24 hours of Foreign Minister Payne’s call for a review, the shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, had backed the government, with the prime minister and opposition leader closely following suit. This provided resilience against domestic politicization of the standoff. Although bipartisanship on the government’s overall management of Australia-China relations during the crisis is now starting to fray, it should remain the object of sound China policy going forward. Unfortunately, a collective approach on the review was not initially achieved internationally because Canberra didn’t line up support from likeminded partners ahead of its call. Although well over 100 countries have now backed the push for an inquiry through a co-sponsored motion at the World Health Assembly — put forward by the European Union and amended by Australia — this early lack of external support left Australia vulnerable to Beijing’s charge that it was stirring up trouble. The lesson here is clear: As Chinese coercion works best when likeminded countries are divided, governments should place collective action ahead of taking a stand.

Finally, Australia’s thorniest challenge throughout the standoff has been distancing itself from the Trump administration’s own inflammatory remarks and misinformation on the pandemic. Amidst dubious allegations about the role of a Chinese biological lab and an increasingly hostile U.S.-China blame game, it’s been easy for Chinese disinformation agents to imply that Australia’s call for an inquiry is part of Washington’s strategy. This has hurt Canberra and the U.S.-Australia alliance. As a bilateral dialogue on deterrence noted last year, the United States and Australia must ensure that efforts to counter disinformation, economic coercion, and other kinds of influence operations “are rooted in liberal norms and, at a minimum, do not damage the democratic spaces — such as the media, civil society, and political institutions — where [this kind of] political warfare typically takes place.” This is truer now than ever before. If Australia is to successfully resist China’s attempts to wedge and mischaracterize the alliance, the United States must protect the integrity of the shared information landscape — and allow Canberra’s independent voice to ring through.

Ashley Townshend is director of foreign policy and defense at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney. He is also founding co-chair of the Track 1.5 U.S.-Australia Indo-Pacific Deterrence Dialogue.

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