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The Great China-Australia Divorce Has Arrived

China's Xi Jinping at BRICS Summit
China's Xi Jinping at BRICS Summit. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

China this week banned imports of some Australian lamb products due to the threat of — what else? — coronavirus. Despite allowing in meat from coronavirus hotspots like the United States and Brazil, China has deemed Australian lamb just too dangerous. The bans come hot on the heels of similar beef bans and wine tariffs. China also has kept dozens of ships carrying Australian coal moored offshore (though it hasn’t yet claimed that coal can transmit coronavirus). About the only Australian product reaching China unhindered is iron ore, and that’s probably because China has nowhere else to get the quantities it needs.

These days, Australia is quite simply “country non grata” in Beijing.

How did things get so bad? Hell hath no fury like a suitor scorned, and if Australia-China relations have turned bad, it’s only because they were so good for so long. Starting around the turn of the millennium, China mounted a massive influence campaign targeting all aspects of Australian society, with the goal of flipping Australia out of the American camp — or at least neutralizing it, on the New Zealand model. And it was succeeding: as late as 2018, the majority of Australians trusted China, according to the benchmark Lowy poll. In 2019, only half of Australians believed that Australia should maintain “strong relations with the United States, even if this might harm our relations with China.”

Australians’ trust in China has now plummeted to all-time lows, and no wonder: last month, China hit Australia with a 14 point ultimatum reminiscent of the lead-up to World War One. The Chinese embassy in Canberra accompanied it with the vague warning “if you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.” Only one of China’s 14 demands was even about international affairs, properly speaking: China wants Australia to stop criticizing its actions regarding Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The others are all about how Australia should run its own country, from the demand that Australia stop enforcing its strategic foreign investment laws to the demand that the government somehow prevent think tanks, media organizations, and Members of Parliament from criticizing China.

If Australia has raised its guard against China, it’s only in the nick of time, and it’s all down to one man: Charles Sturt University ethics professor Clive Hamilton, whose 2018 book Silent Invasion thoroughly documented China’s deep infiltration of Australian elite institutions, from the corporate world to universities to government itself. In the wake of Hamilton’s revelations, the Australian government is now in clean-up mode. This week it passed Australia’s Foreign Relations Act, which gives the federal foreign ministry the power to review and (if necessary) abrogate state, territory, and university agreements with foreign countries if it determines that they run counter to the national interest.

The state of Victoria’s 2019 agreement to join China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is first in the federal field of fire. Victoria is best known internationally for its capital city, Melbourne. It is widely agreed that the new legislation was prompted by the Victorian government’s outright defiance of the federal government’s guidance against the state’s signing a side deal with China. The latest lamb ban is China’s way of warning Australia not to interfere in its subnational diplomacy. Having lost the confidence of the Australian public, China is loath to lose the state of Victoria, its biggest remaining booster in the country.

China’s trade sanctions have to date largely avoided hitting Victorian exports. A courageous state premier would stand by his country in the face of international pressure. Victoria’s Dan Andrews has instead stood by China. He suggested that confronting China was the wrong course of action, “unless of course your only motivation [was] not jobs, not exports, not wealth, not prosperity, but politics.” He’s absolutely right that resisting Chinese aggression is all about politics. What he seems not to understand is that, as an elected politician, politics is his job.

Australia’s China problem is bound to get worse before it gest better, but it has only itself to blame. Not because Australia is in any way at fault in this dispute: it’s not. China’s bullying of Australia is so one-sided that it can hardly even be called a “dispute.” Australia’s mistake was letting China gain so much influence in the country in the first place. It’s a mistake other countries would be wise to learn from. If Australia must play the sacrificial lamb, hopefully, it will be to the benefit of other countries that still have the flexibility to wind down their China ties before it is too late.

Editor’s Note: This piece was updated on 12/13/2020 to fix a small typo. 

Written By

Salvatore Babones (@sbabones) is “Australia’s globalization expert” and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive.



  1. ofer desade

    December 11, 2020 at 2:52 am

    and why, fokrisake, is austraia not ceasing its mineral exports to china?? it’s not as though the mineral producers are helping underwrite the losses of all the other secotrs, right?

    • Franc

      December 11, 2020 at 10:11 am

      I wish people would write proper English comments.

      • William L. Gensert

        December 11, 2020 at 12:07 pm

        I think you mean you wish people would use proper English when writing their comments.

        I’m just saying…

  2. Howard the Duck

    December 11, 2020 at 11:47 am

    Money. Well I am just guessing since I have never been to Australia. Personally, I would cut off their access, ores etc. But this isn’t Monopoly or Risk, and real people with real greed, or simple real obligations to their immediate families make decisions based on what they think they know or need. Without regard to countrymen and women, they decide with their bank accounts and personal well being for the the immediate future, that business as usual is good for them. I once quit a job, because as an American and a veteran (not a combat veteran), I could not allow the person before me to mishandle the flag and leave it laying on a chair or even on the floor. Does that make me a patriot? No. However, it does demonstrate that I at least respect the symbols of our nation, flawed though it is. I swore an oath to defend my country from enemies both foreign and domestic, and though my term of service ended long ago, my oath stands firm. I sincerely hope that Australians of all colors and creed, find the determination necessary to resist the Chinese government and its agents. Because history shows that, eventually, every nation falters and succumbs to its enemies, but that does not have to happen. They almost never fail without help from the inside though, or maybe they do. I don’t know. I am just a man with an opinion. Good luck! Who dares wins.

  3. William L. Gensert

    December 11, 2020 at 12:06 pm

    China views all the world as subservient to itself. With Biden bought and paid for, the D Day for Taiwan is drawing nigh. And then, Australia will be next.

    We in the west have spent too much time looking at China as a market and supplier when they have always been an empire in waiting.

    • ray bale

      December 12, 2020 at 12:25 am


      Just saying….

      (Unless, of course, you meant it lierally:
      ‘an empire’ located in some place called ‘waiting’.)

      • ray bale

        December 12, 2020 at 12:27 am

        Add in the ‘t’ where appropriate.

  4. Anna Arcott

    December 11, 2020 at 6:50 pm

    For the US, the lesson from Australia’s mistake in letting China infiltrate the country, comes too late. Like the corona virus, China has deeply infiltrated into all facets of the country including the political process. Under the guise of setting up the “Confucius Institute” in many US universities, China has been quietly bribing the academia.

    FBI is now revealing that it has subpoenaed Hunter Biden and Joe Biden’s brother Jimmy boy, for China collusion, money laundering and tax evasion. These criminal activities have been going on for over 6 years !!!!

    Joe Biden is nominating Pete Buttigieg as the US ambassador to CHina to negotiate favourable terms for US surrender to China !!!! That will be the ”
    coup de grâce” for this once powerful nation.

  5. FX

    December 12, 2020 at 7:39 am

    The world will be in peace once every one looks at himself in the mirror, instead of criticizing other people, telling other people what to do – no interference in other people’s affairs.

    • KLH

      December 13, 2020 at 7:14 am

      Here’s your 50 cents.

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