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Millennium Post

Tit for tat

Tit for tat
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Months ago, when the call for an inquiry into the source of the COVID-19 pandemic first came on to the global stage, Australia was the nation that led the calls of an independent international effort to ascertain the progress and origin of the contagion. On the face of it, the call for an inquiry did not target or make explicit the involvement of any one nation in this pandemic. Indeed, while the global narrative was already set against China, Australia was doubly careful in not making any untoward gestures of prematurely assigning blame. This was a calculated move given Australia's perceived trade dependence on China and China's own tendency to use trade sanction pressure to push its agenda whenever it feels the need for it.

As it were, China did not see Australia's call for the inquiry as a non-specific one. The anger expressed was very visible and equally swift. Within weeks, Beijing had levelled several crippling tariffs on Australian goods, most particularly Barley. China also issued a travel advisory, 'asking' its citizens to reconsider travelling to Australia. Wang Xining, deputy head of mission of the Chinese embassy in Australia made a somewhat interesting remark on the affair, equal parts scathing and equal parts disappointed in the outcome. He compared Australia's call for the investigation to the betrayal of Julius Caesar by his friend and mentee Brutus. His message of shared bonds and an unnecessary rift caused by suspicion was a far cry from the usual modern-day Chinese mainstay of aggressive diplomacy which uses the full weight of the nation.

Of course, this was not to say that Australia and China had not previously had any sources of tension. Indeed, in recent years, tension has been developing between the two nations on a variety of issues that stem from Australia's suspicion and assertion that China is using its resources to overtly and covertly encroach on Australian sovereignty. Matters were not helped by Australia's criticism of China over its handling of the Hong Kong riots and the subsequent widely condemned security law.

Since then, the tension has only gone up. Australia likewise advised its citizens to stay clear of China given the risk of sudden detention. A very real risk as it turned out. In August, Cheng Lei, a presenter for China Global Television Network and an Australian citizen, was detained by Beijing. It was recently announced that she was detained for suspicion of being involved in criminal activities that endanger China.

A further deterioration took place this month when two Australian journalists had to be hastily evacuated from China following several home visits from Chinese state security officers, often a prelude to being pulled in for questioning. Alarmed, the two journalists sought refuge at the Australian embassy until their eventual evacuation.

The detention and evacuation of two journalists caught between the political games of nations is not entirely new or even alarming for that matter. Why this particular instance matters is because the two journalists were the last Australian news journalists in China. At a time when China is kicking out foreign correspondents at a never before seen rate, this is a clear indication that Beijing is no longer interested in playing polite. Not only is it attempting to 'punish' Australia for asking questions, but it is also making certain that its version of events cannot be questioned by uncontrolled media coverage.

While it is likely that this situation will regrettably deteriorate, the silver lining is that the Scott Morrison Government seems to be willing to hold its ground, even given the pressure from economic groups who see the whole face-off as being bad for business. Australia's attempts to fight back against China, no matter how restrained, have indicated that smaller nations are finally finding the required determination or impetus for standing up to China's expansionist attempts which use economics to slowly but surely encroach on a nation's sovereignty. Overall, it is hard to say that there is much that is surprising in the context. Many commentators have warned for quite some time that Australia conveniently balancing the US for security and China for trade is a practice with a definite deadline. It seems that the deadline has already been reached.

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