Is this a taste of things to come?
In the latest move of a politically-charged row between Beijing and Canberra, China has ramped up tariffs to 212% on Australian wine imports.
The decision earlier this week came after Beijing imposed punitive taxes on barley, clamped down on beef and lobster imports, as well as throttling coal shipments. At stake is a market worth at least US$103 billion to the country’s economy.
“The Australian government seems resigned to taking an economic hit, even in the middle of a recession, as they can hardly do an about-turn on foreign policy under such naked pressure,” Richard McGregor, an analyst at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, told the Financial Times.
Since April, relations between the two nations have plunged to their lowest level in a generation after Canberra called for an investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
An effective ban on Huawei from Australian 5G networks and condemnation of human rights violations against Muslim Uighurs in the enclave of Xinjiang province have also increased tensions.
By November 18, Beijing had issued a list of “14 grievances,” ratcheting up the pressure on Scott Morrison’s government.
The document contained the usual complaints, such as “interfering in China’s sovereignty” after Canberra criticized President Xi Jinping’s administration of bullying democratic Taiwan and clamping down on freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
“China’s move openly challenges Australian sovereignty and democracy. Its list of grievances is an attempt to interfere with lawful domestic and foreign policy choices, and take aim at independent research, media, and free speech,” Lucrezia Poggetti, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a German think tank in Berlin, said.
“Beijing is demanding the kind of treatment that is far from guaranteed in China itself. Its market and society are highly protected from foreign competition and exchanges,” she added.
In short, Australia is paying the price for questioning Beijing’s politically-repressive philosophy and its narrative about the coronavirus crisis.
Yet the country is not alone in its quest for the truth. Many of the nations involved in backing an independent inquiry by the World Health Organization into the origins of Covid-19 are convinced that China has singled them out.
The evidence is certainly compelling, despite the ruling Communist Party’s alternative account of the outbreak.
“Even though China was the first to report [the] virus, [it] doesn’t necessarily mean China is where the virus originated,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a media briefing on Friday.
“We believe the origin process is a complex scientific issue that requires Covid-19 cooperation from the scientific community worldwide. Only by doing [that] can [we] guard against future risks because origin tracing is an evolving and sustained process that involves many countries and regions,” he added, reiterating the CCP line.
So far, nearly 62 million people have been infected worldwide with more than 1.4 million dying of SARS-Cov-2, according to data released by the Johns Hopkins University.
But there has been no evidence to suggest that the pandemic originated outside of China, which has reported just 92,670 infections and a death toll of only 4,742.
“I think it’s highly speculative for us to say that the disease did not emerge in China,” Mike Ryan, the executive director of the health emergencies program at the WHO, told a video briefing less than 24 hours after Zhao’s statement.
“It is clear from a public health perspective that you start your investigations where the human cases first emerged,” he added.
Plans are already underway to send a WHO-backed scientific team to Wuhan to examine the events leading up to January’s epidemic and China’s initial response.
Apart from the human cost, the International Monetary Fund has estimated that $28 trillion has been wiped out in lost global output. The United States, Latin America and Europe have been particularly badly hit by months of lockdowns with business activity shrinking dramatically.
Rising debt levels have only been surpassed by rampant infection rates, leading to calls that China should be sued for damages.
“[Beijing’s] early handling of the disease and failure to adequately report information to the WHO breached Articles Six and Seven of the International Health Regulations, a Treaty to which China is a signatory and legally obliged to uphold,” the Henry Jackson Society, stated in a report entitled Coronavirus Compensation? Assessing China’s Potential Culpability and Avenues of Legal Response.
“As a result of the breaches of international law, the report assesses that potential damages liable against China at the time of writing could run to $4 trillion from just the G7 nations. The UK is said to have a claim worth a potential $449 billion in damages based on formally announced government spending,” the neoconservative think tank in London said in April.
“Using the same methodology, the US could claim $1.2 trillion, Canada $59 billion, and Australia $37 billion,” it added.
In conclusion, those numbers could be dwarfed by the final bill for combating Covid-19 as the study was based on spending plans announced in April.
While it is extremely unlikely such a legal challenge would be mounted, nations such as Australia are already suffering from putting ethical policies ahead of economic enrichment.
China’s view is slightly different. It sees Canberra as a mere “puppet” in outgoing US President Donald Trump’s policy of containing the world’s second-largest economy.
“Canberra should realize it will get nothing from Washington in return for its collusion in its schemes, while Australia will pay tremendously for its misjudgment,” the state-run China Daily said in an editorial three weeks ago.
“To put it simply, if Canberra continues to go out of its way to [harm] China, [it] will be a decision Australia will come to regret as its economy will only suffer further pain,” the English-language newspaper controlled by the Party added.
Proof, if any was needed, that drinking China’s economic elixir can leave you with a colossal hangover.