While the outcome of the US elections remains unclear the future direction of US-China relations also remain uncertain. This presents a new opportunity for Canberra to mend some bridges with Beijing if it wishes to do so.
This year has seen a steady and increasingly rapid decline in US/China relations to the extent that many commentators now describe them as Cold War. In recent months Washington has taken significant moves to bolster relations with Taiwan including official visits by Health and Human Services Minister Alex Azar and undersecretary of state for economic affairs Keith Krach. This was deliberate provocation to Beijing and undermined the US traditional policy of “strategic ambiguity.” Interestingly, in an amazing show of unity between government and opposition parties in that island state, the Taipei parliament has passed a resolution to pursue the reestablishment of formal ties. Since March, there has been progressive ratcheting up of hostility between Washington and Beijing, from Trump’s snide references to “Kung-flu” to closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, provocative naval movements in the South China Sea and last week’s discussion in Tokyo of broadening of security dialogue between the Quad members, US, India, Australia and Japan.
In response, China staged an island invasion military exercise coinciding with Taiwan’s National Day, 10 October, but has also made conciliatory moves in several areas, indicating that it is trying to keep options open. During the month of September, dozens of Chinese companies listed on US stock exchanges. One source claimed that the military media had been instructed since late September to avoid any topics connected with the US election. China’s CCTV announced that it would broadcast the NBA Finals. On hearing that Trump had succumbed to the Corona virus, President Xi Jinping wished him and the First Lady a speedy recovery.
Trump’s personal encounter with the virus had gone down a treat with the Chinese public who were already mesmerised by the presidential debate/shouting match. The man who blamed China for the virus had deserved his punishment, many said, disregarding the traditional saying “Never beat a dog that has fallen into the water.” Credible international relations commentators such as Li Guangman equated Trump’s physical weakness with the weakness of the whole Western World and called on Beijing to take advantage of the situation to strike at the enemy. Nationalist sentiment, coinciding with the October First “Golden Week” holiday led to Trump’s hospitalisation being called a “National Day Gift”. His infection was momentarily the most searched topic on Weibo, China’s major blog platform. A joke circulated on WeChat read, “Trump: ‘I will soon conquer the coronavirus!’ American people: ‘Yes, but what are we supposed to do?’” Borrowing from “Seizing the Crown”, the title of a film released for the holiday concerning the 1980s world champion Womens Volleyball team, people congratulated Trump on “seizing the crown (corona)”. An editorial in the Global Timescommented that Trump had “paid the price for his gamble to play down the COVID-19.”
This uproarious response to Trump’s virus infection was however swiftly suppressed. The Global Times editorial was taken down and replaced by an official statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Chinese internet censors issuedinstructions to lay off extreme statements and interpretations of the situation in Washington. “Concerning U.S. President Trump saying on social media that he and his spouse tested positive for the novel coronavirus, websites and new media may only write brief reports based on the facts, no comments, no hype, and no rejoicing in the misfortune of others. Do not relate this to the U.S. election. Without unified arrangements do not push pop-up notifications, do not allow onto hot searches or lists.”
Beijing recognises that Canberra’s China policies are coordinated with Washington. As Geoff Raby pointed out last week, the interview accorded by former Ambassador Fu Ying to The Australian’s Michael Smith is therefore highly significant. The whole interview was translated into Chinese and published in full in the Chinese press. The substance of the interview is less important than its implication that a reciprocal gesture by Canberra would be appreciated.
The strategic ambiguity of China/US relations extends to Australia and presents an opportunity for Canberra to respond positively and, if it wishes to do so, retrieve some of the ground that has been lost in our bilateral relationship.