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The Quad Tech Network, deteriorating trade relationship and war of words: Australia-China ties on a downhill track since pandemic began

In his most recent interview, only a day ago, the Australian Trade Minister demanded to know why the country was singled out for trade restrictions. Simon Birmingham on Sunday also accused China of engaging in a number of actions that are conducive to a healthy relationship.

The Coronavirus pandemic has had profound implications for international relations as well as the global economy, apart from causing an irreparable loss of human life. China has adopted an aggressive stance with numerous countries pointing fingers at it for its dubious handling of the crisis in its initial days. Simultaneously, a cry to hold China accountable for its actions has been steadily gaining momentum over the course of the year.

One relationship that has undergone a profound transformation since the beginning of the pandemic is that between China and Australia. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner and relations between the two were, compared to current circumstances, quite cordial. But things appear to have taken a decisively downward turn since April.

In April, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison threw his weight behind an independent inquiry into the origins of the Coronavirus that was first detected in China. He again reiterated the necessity of such a probe before the UN General Assembly in September. Apart from that, Australia has also condemned the manner in which Hong Kong is being dealt with and voiced its concerns for the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Australian Trade Minister speaks up

China, as has been the norm, does not take criticism very well and it did not on this occasion as well. In his most recent interview, only a day ago, the Australian Trade Minister demanded to know why the country was singled out for trade restrictions. Simon Birmingham on Sunday also accused China of engaging in a number of actions that are conducive to a healthy relationship.

Birmingham told sky News that he did not believe “that a number of the actions from China’s embassy in Australia have been particularly helpful this year”. His comments were prompted by a Chinese official who said on Friday that “the problem is all caused by the Australian side” and they should stop treating China as a strategic threat if it wanted a resumption of ministerial level talks.

Birmingham also cited the comments made by the Chinese ambassador in April in response to Australia calling for an independent probe into the origins of the Coronavirus. He said that the latter’s comments “essentially were threats of coercion”, while the list of “claimed grievances” constituted the “types of things that … any country rightly does in terms of providing for rules around foreign investment to make sure it’s in the national interest, rules to protect critical infrastructure and security provisions in nations”.

He also said that the Australian government was “so deeply concerned at the fact that the number of regulatory interventions China has taken this year that seem to have disrupted the flow of trade do then undermine that economic cooperation”. But instead of only complaining, Australia has taken certain actions as well.

The Quad Tech Network

On Monday, the 23rd of November, it was reported that Australia has decided to spend $500,000 to set up a tech network among the ‘Quad’ democracies, that is, India, Australia, Japan and the United States of America. The Australian National University will be provided with $497,000 to set up a “Quad Tech Network”.

A notification on the government’s grant website stated, “DFAT’s Cyber Affairs and Critical Technology Branch is seeking to establish a Quad Tech Network (QTN), to support and complement the development of Australia’s first Cyber and Critical Technology International Engagement Strategy (CCTIES).”

Significantly, it states, “QTN will support research and promote engagement with academic and think tank partners on cyber and critical technology issues that reflect Australia’s interests as a liberal democracy committed to the international rules-based order.” “The QTN is intended to produce policy-relevant research and recommendations relevant to Australia’s national interests across the breadth of cyber affairs and critical technology issues; deepen and strengthen public understanding of these issues; and promote informed public dialogue,” it stated.

The Downward Spiral

China has taken a series of actions against Australian industries. Barley, beef, coal, and cotton to lobster, timber, and wine among others have been targeted by anti-subsidy and anti-dumping measures by China or had their deliveries delayed. China claimed that it was due to quality issues but it is widely recognised that it was in retaliation to the political positions taken by Australia in recent times.

In response, Australia has barred Chinese traders from purchasing at least 6 six different categories of Australian products. It was also the first country to ban Huawei from developing a 5G network. It also joined the other three members of the Quad in Naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal in the Malabar region.

Meanwhile, ever since Australia made the call for a probe into the virus origins, China has made consistent efforts to up the pressure on the country. “(They) have subsequently taken a series of wrong moves related to China, which is at the root cause of China-Australia relations taking a sharp downturn and stuck in the current difficult situation … the responsibility for causing this situation doesn’t lie with China at all,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

“These practices have grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs and seriously hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” he added , commenting on Australia raking up China’s human rights abuses. Things reached their zenith, however, when Chang Lei, an Australian citizen and high-profile host for China’s English-language broadcaster CGTN was detained on suspicion of endangering national security. Consequently, two Australian journalists had to be evacuated from China on the advice of diplomats after they were questioned aggressively by authorities.

The future of the Australia-China relationship

Australia has also asked traders to loom for alternative exporting destinations apart from China. Despite all of this, China remains Australia’s top trading partner. Even so, experts on the matter remain cautious about the unfolding scenario. James Laurenceson, director and professor at the Australia-China Relations Institute (UTS), University of Technology Sydney, said, “The Australia-China relationship is unravelling at a pace that could not have been contemplated just six months ago.”

Michael Shoebridge, a national security expert at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Australia’s approach towards Beijing shifted as Xi “aggressively used Chinese strategic, military, cyber, technological and economic power against Australia’s and others’ interests, not just internationally, but also inside our own nations.” Earlier, it focused “wholly on the mutual advantage of economic engagement”.

Not everyone is happy, however, with how Australia has responded to China, choosing to confront rather than placate. Bob Carr, Australia’s former minister for foreign affairs, is one of them. He believes that his country has become more hawkish than most and would end up paying the price for it while the allies benefit at their expense.

“We inflicted self harm to impress Washington, but under its phase one trade agreement with China, it’s US farmers, wine makers and fishers who will fill the gaps in the supermarket shelves vacated by Australian produce,” he said said, adding that Australia will look “even more foolish if (President-elect) Biden opens up partnerships with China on climate and pandemic management even as he maintains pressure” on other issues such as the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and cyber security.

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