President-elect Joe Biden says he wants to face the China challenge squarely and alongside our allies. Beijing has offered Biden a golden opportunity to act immediately on his stated desire, as China is now illegally boycotting imports of Australian wine, coal, and other products.
Biden should swiftly launch consultations with major U.S. allies to establish an international consortium for buying and redistributing the wine and other products Beijing is boycotting.
In this way, the new U.S. president could quickly demonstrate that the ‘free world’ is not just a nice term. It is a force to be reckoned with and can counter Beijing’s authoritarian, mercantilist policies.
What’s at stake here is not merely wine and coal, or even free trade. It’s free speech, rule of law, and liberty from oppression. The conflict between Canberra and Beijing has been brewing for a long time. It began in February 2005, when China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Zhou Wenzhong, arrived in Canberra to communicate a new strategy to senior officials of the Chinese embassy there. The two -part strategy was first to establish Australia as a reliable supply base for China’s continued economic growth, and then to drive a wedge into the Australian-U.S. alliance. Those present were given the assignment of figuring out how China could attain comprehensive influence over Australia economically, politically, and culturally.
We know this to be true because Chen Yonglin, first secretary for political affairs at the Chinese consulate in Sydney, was at the meeting. In June 2005, he walked out of the consulate and requested political asylum in Australia. He explained to stunned Australian officials at the time that “essentially, in accordance with their fixed strategic plans, the Communist Party of China had begun a structured effort to infiltrate Australia in a systemic way.”
In the ensuing years, Chinese companies came to control a large portion of Australia’s major pipelines and a large segment of its telecommunications infrastructure. Chinese firms also manage most of Australia’s big ports. Chinese billionaires began migrating to Australia and making large political donations, as well as large donations to universities. All of the formerly independent Chinese language newspapers published by Australia’s Chinese community came to be owned from mainland China and to publish news that follows the Beijing line. China became the largest market for exports of Australia’s iron ore, coal, and other important minerals. It also came to supply a large number of students to study at Australian universities, and millions of tourists to sit on Australian beaches.
When I met with the head of a major Australian bank in the summer of 2018, he told me that while Australia and the United States had been allies in World War Two and later conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, America should not look for Australian soldiers if there were to be a dustup over Taiwan. Why not? Because, he said, Australia’s economy is so dependent on China.
In the past three years, political donation scandals and revelations of espionage and pressure tactics have led to a shift in Australian policies and attitudes toward China. Political donation rules have been toughened, as have rules on strategic investments. Australia’s leaders have also come forward to condemn China’s human rights violations, its militarization of the South China Sea, and most recently its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Specifically, Australia has called for an open, international investigation of the origins of the Covid-19 virus.
That has not gone down well in Beijing. In May, Australian barley exports to China were suddenly hit with anti-dumping tariffs. Then, Chinese imports of Australian beef were suddenly halted due to unexplained “health” concerns. In early November, Australian lobsters died while waiting for customs clearance in Shanghai. Timber imports were also halted due to “concerns about pests.” Chinese state media reported that imports of copper and sugar from Australia might also be cut.
This, mind you, from a country that had just celebrated leading the successful negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade agreement.
Australia responded by requesting talks to settle the issues. China answered in mid-November by presenting Australia with a list of fourteen grievances that it asked Australia to reflect upon and repair before there could be any resolution of the trade problem. Beijing went further still, saying that Australia was acting as if China is the enemy, and that if China is treated as an enemy it will indeed become an enemy.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded by saying that “Australian democracy and sovereignty are not up for trade.” China has responded by announcing reduction of imports of Australian wine.
Here is a chance for Biden to enlist the free world in a cooperative project to underpin Australia, send a message to Beijing, and, oh, by the way, get a drink of some very good wine.
Clyde Prestowitz is author of the forthcoming book, "The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership." The views expressed are the author's own.