Torn deal, virus accusations, spies: Australia-China relations in free fall

Construction has stalled on the China-Laos railway line, one of several infrastructure projects funded by China’s Belt and Road Initiative. the flagship of Xi Jinping’s geostrategic vision for the Asia-Pacific region. (Photo: AFP / Getty Images).

BEIJING: Accusations of espionage, calls for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19, and now a blow to China’s Belt and Road Down Under ambitions – tensions between Australia and its biggest trading partner, the China, are going from bad to worse.

Here’s a look at the latest break in relationships and how the long-standing rumble began.

Goodbye BRI

Australia on Wednesday announced the revocation of the Victoria state government’s agreement to join China’s vast Belt and Road Initiative, saying it fell short of national foreign policy priorities.

The move comes after months of heavy trade hits on Australian exports from Beijing and routine exchanges of outrage for everything from espionage to the administration of Hong Kong.

By tearing up the documents signed in 2018 and 2019 – a memorandum of understanding and a framework agreement – Foreign Minister Marise Payne risks seriously irritating Beijing by attacking one of its major geostrategic priorities.

All eyes will be on China for possible retaliation after Canberra’s blow to President Xi Jinping’s vast infrastructure plan to lasso much of Asia-Pacific and beyond into orbit. China.

The tone was set as soon as the Chinese Embassy in Australia denounced the removal of the agreement as “unreasonable and provocative”.

Origins of the coronavirus

Australia last April joined the United States in calling for a full investigation into how the coronavirus turned from an outbreak located in central China into a pandemic – triggering scandalized warnings from the Chinese Ambassador to the country.

Cheng Jingye said requests for an investigation could lead to a boycott of consumers of Australian wine or tourist travel, adding that the push for an independent investigation was “dangerous.”

Canberra’s appeal, which enraged China, is seen in Beijing as a US-backed attempt to discredit it.

Commercial success

The rift has since left Australian exporters at risk, with China imposing a series of retaliatory bans on agricultural products such as beef, barley and timber.

Weeks after Cheng warned of a consumer boycott, Beijing suspended imports from four major Australian beef suppliers.

Neither side has openly linked the suspension to the call for an investigation, citing technical issues instead.

But soon after, China also announced anti-dumping duties on barley, and its latest measures target Australian wine.

Detention and espionage

Another point of contention concerns high-profile Australian citizens detained by China: writer Yang Jun and journalist Cheng Lei.

Born in China, Yang, who also goes by the pen name Yang Hengjun, was arrested in January last year and faces espionage charges, which he denies.

Australia’s Payne has previously denounced China’s treatment of Yang as “unacceptable”.

Cheng, a presenter for the English-language Chinese public broadcaster, has been detained since at least August 14. She was formally arrested in February this year on charges of “providing state secrets abroad” – although Beijing has revealed few other details about the allegations. against her.

Two Australian journalists were kicked out of China in September last year after police attempted to question them, while Beijing accuses Canberra of raiding its reporters’ homes while investigating an alleged campaign of secret influence.

‘Five Eyes’ rebound

Australia is among the Western allies – the so-called “five eyes” – accusing China of violating its legally binding international commitments in Hong Kong after it imposed tough security laws on the city.

The United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand have criticized China for ousting pro-democracy lawmakers from the Hong Kong legislature and raised fears about the intentions of Chinese tech companies to abroad.

But attempts to build a united front against China elicited a generally laconic response from Beijing.

A foreign ministry spokesperson warned, “Whether they have five or ten eyes, if they dare to harm China’s sovereignty, security and development, they must beware of being blinded. “

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