China imposed tariffs on Australian barley and banned exports of beef from four Australian abattoirs three weeks ago

Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has since tried unsuccessfully to speak with China’s Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan

Since China imposed tariffs on Australian barley and banned exports of beef from four Australian abattoirs three weeks ago,

This creates an unusual situation for two countries with strong trade relations, and only goes to add to growing suspicions in Australia, the world’s most China-dependent economy, that the tariff and bans were punishment for Canberra’s political support for an international inquiry into the

Since the moves last month, China has also thrown two more trade-related sanctions at Australia. Last weekend, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism issued a warning against travel to Australia due to a significant increase in racist attacks on “Chinese and Asian people”, and on Tuesday, the Ministry of Education issued a warning to its students looking to continue their studies at Australian universities when spring semester starts in July.

During a radio interview on Monday, Birmingham expressed his disappointment again at not being able to speak with Zhong despite trying several times to place a call. It is understood Birmingham’s request for a phone call “could not be facilitated at this time”.

“Unfortunately our requests for a discussion have, so far, been met negatively, that’s disappointing,”

“As I’ve emphasised publicly, time and time again, Australia is open to have difficult discussions on matters upon which we may disagree with other countries but will do so respectfully, thoughtfully, calmly. And it’s unfortunate when other nations won’t respond or reciprocate in kind.”

An Australian citizen responded on social media saying that, “the Chinese minister is going to keep ghosting Birmingham”.

In reality, it is highly unlikely China has any intention to sever ties completely by quietly disappearing and ignoring Australia – the modern phenomenon of ghosting when one party ends a personal relationship by halting communication without an explanation – but the silent treatment is part of a new Chinese art of war, experts said.

The Chinese government’s typically subtle approach to foreign relations championed by Deng Xiaoping – known as

in Chinese that involves keeping a low profile – was now history, said Bucknell University professor of political science and international relations, Zhiqun Zhu.

The change in attitude started in 2010 when China’s gross domestic product surpassed that of Japan and after Beijing successfully hosted the 2008 Olympic Games. The boost in Chinese nationalism led to a decade-long internal debate of whether China should continue to keep its head down, but it was now clear cooler-headed scholars and officials have been outvoted, Zhu said.

“Snubbing Australia is part of this assertive diplomacy. It’s a manifestation of China’s changing attitude toward Australia. Tariffs are not the only issue between the two countries. It is clear that China is unhappy with Australia’s recent moves to become part of the Trump administration’s anti-China campaign,” Zhu added.

China has a long list of complaints about Australia’s policies, Zhu said, including its navy’s participation in military exercises with the United States in the South China Sea, its ban on

the endorsement of a statement against Beijing’s proposed national security law in Hong Kong, and political support for US senator Marco Rubio’s call for the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.

Launched only at the end of last week, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China is

“From China’s perspective, the current Australian government has been enthusiastic in supporting the Trump administration’s high-handed approach to China. So China cannot conduct business as usual with Australia,” Zhu added.

“A lot of things unfriendly toward China are happening at the same time, so from Beijing’s perspective, this trend has to be stopped. So yes, Beijing’s snubbing of Canberra is a strong and clear message to Australia: don’t follow the Trump administration too closely and make China-Australia relations difficult.

“China and Australia have their own interests in the dynamic relationship, and they should manage the relations by themselves, unaffected by others.”

Richard Maude, Asia Society Australia senior fellow and a former deputy secretary of the Indo-Pacific Group at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said the change in China’s harder stance towards Australia developed further when the Spratly Islands dispute in the South China Sea started around 2012.

“The political level relationship between Australia and China has been cool for some time. Much of the normal dialogue between the two countries has been put on hold by China. Not taking phone calls is simply more of the same,” he said.

“China’s recent Wolf Warrior diplomacy is simply the most recent iteration of a now long-standing shift towards a more aggressive, zero-sum Chinese foreign policy.”

According to Ben Lowsen, a Chinese security specialist who is also an adviser to the US Air Force’s strategic studies group, Checkmate, the momentum in this new and more assertive foreign relations policy, the so-called Wolf Warrior diplomacy, named after a set of films in which Chinese fighters defeat Western-led enemies, has been accelerated by a more outspoken Chinese leader in Xi Jinping. He is known for grander policies – such as the Belt and Road Initiative – compared to his predecessors.

As Chinese politicians tend to “work towards the chairman”, Xi in this case, the more aggressive approach they have taken towards countries like Australia is in keeping with the good graces of their leader, Lowsen said.

“Not returning Birmingham’s phone calls shows two things. Xi does not intend to alter the tariffs at present, continuing pressure on Australia, and Zhong is stressing the seriousness of the ‘insult’ to his Australian counterpart,” Lowsen said.

“Typically, officials will answer a counterpart’s request with a yes or no, but sometimes will say they are still considering it. My experience with China is that this period of consideration can last for some time, even indefinitely, presumably because the decision maker feels the time is not yet right for either a yes or a no.

“Emphasising displeasure shows Beijing’s determination to pressure Canberra to change its tune on the Covid-19 investigation.”

Time will tell if China relents on its barley tariff against Australia, especially if it can get something else from Australia either in a form of an image boost or compensation, Lowsen added.

This, though, is not the first time China has given the cold shoulder treatment to other countries.

The strain lasted six years, during which no bilateral meetings were held and China placed restrictions on imports of Norwegian salmon before they were lifted in 2016.

China will definitely continue its more hardened diplomatic approach and punish countries when they take decisions Beijing does not like, a by-product of its rising power, experts said, but whether it will be effective is debatable.

“This new approach is still being developed,” Zhu said.

“Whether China is ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkey’ is up to other countries to interpret,” Zhu said, using an ancient Chinese saying meaning to punish a small entity to warn a larger one. “Still, the message of unhappiness and punishment is clear.

“Hypocrisy and double-standards are clear, which weakens the West’s criticisms of China. At the core is the West’s unwillingness and unreadiness to accept the rise of China, a non-democracy and a non-Western ally.”

However, with respect to Australia, this retaliatory attitude could backfire, according to Maude.

“It is a counterproductive way of managing differences. It simply hardens government and public attitudes in Australia against China,” he said.

Lowsen added that the new diplomatic repertoire of “working towards Chairman Xi” could come off as being off-putting and having a chauvinistic edge.

But whether it is China, Australia or even the US which offers the olive branch first, the forces that are driving a decoupling of the West from China, led by the US, appear to be in full motion.

“There may be nothing that can stop it. The alternative is a re-set that brings the temperature down and finds space within an inevitably more competitive relationship for cooperation on some issues,” Maude said.

“To get to that point will require strong leadership and shifts in policy from both China and the US.”

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