Australia’s trials are not the first time Beijing has used economic coercion against another country.
It has become so common that we are becoming desensitised to it. Some notable examples include Beijing’s limitations on rare earth exports to Japan in 2010, Norwegian fish exports in 2010, Philippine tropic fruit exports in 2012, Vietnam’s tourist industry in 2014, Mongolian commodities trade in 2016, and South Korean businesses in 2017. In each case, Beijing sought to achieve a political objective by imposing economic penalties.
This case is different. Beijing has typically been ambiguous about the purpose or nature of its coercive economic statecraft. Despite evidence otherwise, it blamed the Japanese ban on meeting a yearly quota, the Philippine ban on pesticide exposure, the tourism drop to Vietnam on changing Chinese preferences, and the closure of South Korean stores on fire code violations. In Australia’s case, though, Beijing is doing away with these pretenses.
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China has not been shy this time about connecting its punitive actions to its unhappiness with Australian policies. The Chinese foreign ministry has listed a “series of wrong moves” by Australia for the disruption in relations. Beijing’s embassy in Canberra then gave a list of 14 “mistakes” to the Australian press.
These grievances include Australia’s foreign interference legislation, foreign investment reviews, funding for Australian think tanks, and unfriendly media reporting. Some of these criticisms are particularly ironic coming from Beijing, which often objects to foreign interference in other countries’ domestic affairs.
A core component of China’s strategy is a disinformation and propaganda effort designed to paint its moves as merely defensive, a proportionate and legitimate response to actions taken by the other side.
Australia has done nothing ‘wrong’
Let’s be clear: Australia has done nothing “wrong” in promoting and protecting its democratic institutions at home. It should not censor its media, obstruct analysis by outside experts, or shy away from safeguarding its democratic processes.
This time, the current trade restrictions are about more than making an example of Australia or showing smaller powers that they’ll pay if they have something to say about how the Chinese Communist Party governs at home. Beijing’s aims have taken on new proportions. Party leaders are now willing to punish democracies simply for upholding basic democratic principles within their own countries.
The message is clear: curtail some of your democratic principles or pay the price.
The US needs to work with like-minded states around the world to address this new threat. Free countries need to speak out together in Australia’s defence. If democracies do not hang together, they will hang separately. We should articulate that China’s actions are more than a violation of international law; they threaten the health of our democracies at home. Such a reframing would show Beijing that economic coercion will no longer be treated as a low-stakes tactic.
But words are not enough. We need coordinated action. US alliances are designed primarily to deter and defend against military attacks. Chinese actions make clear, however, that there are alternative methods for undermining peace, prosperity and freedom that our alliances do not adequately address. New alliance consultations to protect against economic attack would enhance our deterrence against China.
Washington should also launch a series of discussions with its allies to determine what new institutional mechanisms, commitments, and structures are needed to defend against economic attacks, not just military ones.
We should ensure the ability to take joint reciprocal action against Beijing in the economic realm, particularly to defend smaller countries. China engages in economic coercion because it is effective and relatively risk-free. But if instead like-minded countries responded together when one was attacked economically, this would go a long way in discouraging Beijing from employing such tactics.
Using all the tools of power
A critical first step is mapping dependencies on China and investigating how to limit over-dependence that open democracies to unacceptable economic vulnerability. As in the military realm, we need to enhance our resiliency against attack by avoiding over-dependence on any single import, export, or supply chain decency. This is a task that the so-called D10 (G7 plus Australia, India, and South Korea) should take up early next year.
The good news is a collective response to Chinese economic coercion will be more feasible under a Biden administration. President-elect Joe Biden and his senior advisers have articulated a preference for multilateral responses to Chinese aggression.
And while President Donald Trump relied mainly on military moves to warn and punish Beijing, Biden’s team prefers to make use of all tools of power. For these reasons, there has even been talk of rejuvenating past efforts like TPP. US allies and partners are also likely to see Biden as more reliable, making them more willing to undertake the risky venture of joining forces against Beijing.
The United States, Australia, and other allies and partners tried to welcome China into the international community. This was the right move. It has been good economically for many advanced economies, including Australia and the United States. But there is a flip side to every coin.
Australia has become too vulnerable to the whims of Beijing. And the US has few options to protect against such economic pressure. The incoming Biden administration needs to fundamentally rethink the nature of alliances so that countries like Australia have a third option the next time Beijing forces a choice between freedom and prosperity.