Chinese officials have warned of a consumer-led boycott of Australian products following the breakdown in relations between the two countries, fuelled by Malcolm Turnbull’s foreign interference laws and pushback against Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Australian understands there have been talks in China about indirectly pulling economic levers — potentially targeting consumer products, tourism and education — that could threaten Australian industry and businesses. The Chinese warning, which would mirror a boycott of products imported from The Philippines after the countries fell out over South China Sea sovereignty claims, was levelled at Australia in the wake of deteriorating diplomatic relations between Beijing and Canberra.
While warning that this move, which would be consumer-driven rather than an official government directive, was not an ideal outcome, officials indicated the threat was aimed at pushing back against criticism of China’s role in the Asia-Pacific region.
Chinese officials in Beijing, supported by its embassy, have ratcheted up pressure on Australia following the release of the foreign policy white paper, the breakdown over the China extradition treaty, and coverage of Chinese influence in Australia, headlined by the Sam Dastyari scandal.
During a series of forums in China last week, Chinese officials and government-aligned think tanks suggested there was a growing perception of Australians being racist and irresponsible. An official who claimed China was becoming a “scapegoat” for Mr Turnbull’s gain, suggested recent developments had the potential to “damage” bilateral relations.
The Chinese rhetoric came in the lead-up to last weekend’s Bennelong by-election, where Labor used the Turnbull government’s crackdown on foreign interference to campaign against Liberal MP John Alexander.
The Australian last week revealed that Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had summoned Australia’s ambassador to China, Jan Adams, for an official rebuke following the breakdown in relations.
Mr Turnbull was attacked by Chinese officials over his comments that Australians should “stand up” for their nation’s sovereignty, claiming it was a directed slight against China. Chinese authorities viewed the comments in a historical context that dates back to the communist nation breaking free from colonial rule and Japanese occupation.
The Prime Minister has rejected China’s claims the foreign interference laws were targeted at any specific country, and this week said “we need to ensure that the rights and interests of all nations are respected and their sovereignty is respected”.
Zhou Mi, deputy director of the Institute of American and Oceania Studies and Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Co-operation, said he did not think a boycott would be necessary, citing fears earlier this year of a trade war with the US. “It is better to increase mutual understanding … not to break from each other,” said Dr Zhou, who is attached to the Ministry of Commerce. “Co-operation would be better. So I think that it is better for us to do some co-operation than a one-side decision … that would not be useful.”
China Institute of International Studies deputy director Song Junying said there were growing concerns about Australia’s involvement with the quadrilateral dialogue, involving the US, India and Japan.
“This progress has been negatively perceived by most Chinese. It can be regarded as the first step to encircle China,” Mr Song said.
He said the foreign policy white paper showed Australia’s tone had changed and was becoming “much tougher” on China. “I think it is related to the recent development of the situation in this region,” he said. “You have very deep concern that if the US retreats from this region, China will take up the lead and fill the vacuum. I understand this concern because we are different countries, we have different systems, we have different ideology, we have different values.”
Dr Zhou was concerned about anti-China resentment in relation to foreign investment in Australia, suggesting anxiety over national security threats was unfounded.