As Australia-China ties spiral downward, why is Lee Kuan Yew’s warning a talking point?

As Australia-China ties spiral downward, why is Lee Kuan Yew’s warning a talking point?

  • With Beijing and Canberra engaged in a flurry of inquiries, bans, scrutiny of deals and detentions, questions of when ties will hit rock bottom loom large
  • A Chinese tabloid resurrected late Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew’s warning that Australia risked becoming ‘the poor white trash of Asia’

There are more twists to the tale of deteriorating Australia-China ties than one could have imagined. This week alone, Beijing announced its second inquiry into Australian wine imports, suspended barley imports from the country’s largest grain exporter and confirmed the detention of a prominent Australian journalist.Then, the Global Times tabloid published by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily decided to channel late Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew. It echoed comments Lee made in 1980 where he said Australia, then battling inflation and unemployment, needed to open its economy. But the Global Times quoted his words to warn Australia that it risked becoming the “poor white trash of Asia” if it decoupled from its largest trading partner.Canberra meanwhile has stepped up scrutiny of Beijing’s actions in Australia, proposing legislation that could see numerous agreements between China and state and local authorities torn up, as well as an inquiry into Communist Party influence at universities. As tensions escalate across a growing list of areas, the question of when things will hit rock bottom looms large.

1. How did we get here?After enduring various rocky patches in recent years, Sino-Australian relations have been in a near-continuous downward spiral since April when Canberra called for an independent international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. The proposal infuriated Beijing, which soon afterwards slapped a series of restrictions on Australian exports of barley and beef for alleged violations of anti-dumping and labelling rules.Since last month, China’s Commerce Ministry has set its sights on Australian wine imports, a market worth some A$1.3 billion (US$948 million) annually. On Monday, the ministry confirmed a probe into alleged subsidies for bottled wine, on top of an earlier anti-dumping investigation. Australian officials have blasted the moves as being baseless or based on minor and highly technical irregularities.

In Australia, Beijing’s actions have been widely seen as intimidation and bullying – a suspicion fuelled by a prior warning by Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye that “ordinary people” could boycott Australian products in anger over the inquiry.

Beijing has denied engaging in economic retaliation, insisting its measures relate to routine enforcement of trade rules, but it has also repeatedly made plain its displeasure with Canberra. In a rare appearance at the National Press Club in Canberra last month, Wang Xining, China’s No 2 diplomat in the country, accused Australia of singling out China, likening its inquiry proposal to the betrayal of Julius Caesar by his friend Brutus.