NEW DELHI (THE STATESMAN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The first concrete evidence of a Chinese reaction to the military exercises off India's coast - involving the navies of India, the United States, Australia and Japan - may be emerging.
Reports from Australia suggest that China has asked its buyers not to purchase seven categories of goods from Australia.
These cover coal, wine, barley, copper ore, sugar, timber and lobster and while China has denied any official ban, its spokesperson did go so far as to say that any measures taken by Beijing were "legitimate, reasonable and beyond reproach."
According to news reports, Chinese importers were called in and told to stop buying the goods from Australia in an instruction that was couched as a suggestion but accepted as an order.
A wine importer, for instance, was reportedly told that Chinese customs would not process Australian wine shipments from this week. For Australia, these are worrying signs for nearly a third of its exports are to China.
Canberra first drew Beijing's ire for its support to calls for an international investigation into the source of the coronavirus in Wuhan.
Thereafter, the relationship has deteriorated steadily, with China having launched anti-dumping investigations on Australian wine, levied dumping tariffs on barley, banned import of some Australian timber saying it was pest-ridden and held up clearance of lobster shipments, leading to the death of the marine crustaceans before they could reach markets.
That the actions are premeditated has been made clear by state-run Chinese media, with an English-language daily issuing a thinly veiled threat saying the investigations thus far cover only a small part of Australia's exports to China.
The editorial warned Canberra to "steer clear of Washington's brinkmanship with China before it is too late."
It said: "Choosing sides will be a decision Australia will come to regret as its economy will only suffer further pain".
Australia, for the moment, has chosen to ignore links between its strategic decisions and trade relations with Trade Minister Simon Cunningham opting to rely on - admittedly with some scepticism - the official Chinese position that no coordinated action is being taken against the country.
"They deny any discriminatory actions are being taken," he was quoted as saying. Another minister said Australia was a rules-based global trading partner and hoped others would follow the same rules.
But the steady and relentless attacks on imports from Australia suggest this may not be the case.
With Chinese power plants not using Australian coal, and with beef importers switching orders to South America in spite of higher shipping costs, it seems Beijing is determined to make Canberra pay for what a state-owned newspaper termed "aggressively sending warships to China's doorsteps".
India is already locked in a tense border situation; Taiwan has been in a state of alert and now Australia is being hit where it hurts. Beijing is clearly on the warpath.
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