It would seem odd that just as China and Australia helped conclude the Asean-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the world's biggest free trade agreement, both should now be involved in a diplomatic brawl involving doctored images, cross-accusations and punitive tariffs that put pressure on Australian export industries. The latest brouhaha follows months of tension between the two, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic that was first identified in China and Australia's call for a full international inquiry into the origins of the outbreak. Last month, Beijing presented Canberra with a list of 14 demands and complaints, including of unfavourable coverage in Australian media.
At the heart of the issue is that the Australian government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison has steadfastly stood with the Western alliance against China, and more recently, strongly embraced the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue stitched up by Japan and the United States, and which also includes India. Canberra has not only shut out Huawei from its putative 5G telecommunications network, but also sent technical and intelligence experts to warn off New Delhi about the alleged risks, advice that appears to have fallen on willing ears. Beijing sees this as ingratitude: Australia's three-decade run of economic growth was without question helped by iron ore, meat and wine exports to China's huge market.