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It has been a month since the editorial board of The Financial Times wrote about the rapid deterioration in the relationship between Beijing and Canberra due to Australia’s call for an inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 virus. Although the Nov. 26 editorial urged that “Democratic countries should coordinate responses to pressure from Beijing,” nothing seems to have changed so far, at least.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s remark last April infuriated China, although what he said was very appropriate given the situation at the time: “Now, it would seem entirely reasonable and sensible that the world would want to have an independent assessment of how this (COVID-19) all occurred, so we can learn the lessons and prevent it from happening again.”

Chinese officials in Australia immediately denounced the comments and leaked a 14-point memo to the local media. Those officials reportedly said, “China is angry. If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy,” or “Why should China care about Australia?” The leaked Chinese dossier contained the following 14 grievances:

  • Foreign investment decisions against China
  • Banning Huawei from the roll-out of 5G
  • Foreign interference laws targeting China
  • Politicization and stigmatization of bilateral relations
  • Call for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus
  • Incessant wanton interference in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan
  • Siding with the U.S. anti-China campaign on COVID-19
  • Latest legislation against China’s B&R
  • Statement on the South China Sea
  • Funding to anti-China think tank
  • Search and seizure of Chinese journalists’ homes and properties
  • Allegations against China on cyberattacks
  • Condemnation and racist attacks against Chinese and Asians
  • Unfriendly report on China by media

Beijing has since targeted major Australia exports, placing tariffs on barley, restricting beef imports and started an anti-dumping inquiry into its wine sales in China, to name a few. China has even threatened that it may implement harsher measures if Australia does not “correct its mistakes.” Dear Canberra, you are not alone for the following reasons:

Rare earths and Japan

In September 2010, a Chinese fishing boat collided with several Japanese patrol boats near the Senkaku Islands. which led to Japan’s detention of the Chinese skipper. Beijing instantly retaliated by detaining Japanese citizens in China and imposing an unofficial embargo on rare earth exports to Japan.

Salmon and Norway

In October 2010, despite a strong warning from Beijing, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese writer and human rights activist, the Nobel Peace Prize “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” China soon launched a boycott of Norwegian salmon as a clear sign of retaliation.

Bananas and the Philippines

In April 2012, a military standoff took place between Chinese and Philippine naval units in the South China Sea near Scarborough Shoal. Beijing immediately retaliated by banning many Philippine banana imports. In May 2016, China destroyed 35 tons of Philippine bananas worth $33,000 for failing to comply with sanitary requirements.

Anti-missile system and South Korea

In August 2016, Seoul decided to install THAAD, a U.S. missile-defense system, in South Korea. Since then, South Korea and its companies, heavily dependent on Chinese markets, have suffered an economic backlash, sales slumps, product boycotts, business suspensions and a sudden cutoff in Chinese tourism.

Canola seeds and Canada

In December 2018, Canadian authorities arrested Huawei Technologies’ senior executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver at the behest of the United States. China, in apparent retaliation, stopped buying Canadian canola products. Canada exported about 40% of its canola seed, oil and meal to China in trade deals worth about $2.7 billion in 2018.

The NBA and Hong Kong human rights

In October 2019, a general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team tweeted the symbol of the Fight for Freedom Stand by Hong Kong pro-democracy group. Beijing became furious and, within days, Chinese leagues, streaming services, sponsors and partners had cut ties with the Rockets and the NBA.

Handling China’s coercive ways

Here is the good news. Although the NBA called the general manager’s comments as “regrettable,” its commissioner said he would not apologize for the tweet. Twelve months later, China finally gave in and CCTV (Chinese Central Television) resumed broadcasting NBA games in China.

Likewise, China’s rare earths embargo against Japan did not work because Tokyo could build its own supply chain. Boycotting Canadian canola and Norwegian salmon also was unsuccessful. That was because Chinese consumers were forced to buy products that were either lower in quality or cost more, or both.

The results were not always positive. In June 2017, President Moon Jae-in suspended further THAAD deployment pending a review. The Philippines is still vulnerable to China’s banana diplomacy. Beijing does not target major powers. It only picks weaker, smaller and vulnerable nations or industries to coerce. There is no exception to this rule.

History does not repeat itself but it sometimes rhymes. When I read the 14 Chinese grievances or demands of Australia, I remembered the 21 demands that Imperial Japan made during World War I to the government of the Republic of China in 1915.

The Japanese demands were supposed to enhance Tokyo’s control of Manchuria. In the final analysis, however, Japan gained little but lost a great deal of prestige and trust in the international community. Beijing now seems to be as arrogant and irrational as Tokyo was in 1915 and the years after.

Now Beijing reportedly is open to an international team of COVID-19 investigators visiting China in January despite its harsh reaction to Prime Minister’s Morrison’s earlier call for an international inquiry into the origins of the outbreak. What the Australian prime minister said at the time was appropriate and the international community must remain united and push China to do what is right during these trying times.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as special adviser to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Japanese government.

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