Australian exporters and tourism operators could face a Chinese consumer backlash if strained relations between Canberra and Beijing worsen.
Chinese government officials are keen to see whether recent comments by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull about foreign interference in Australian politics are just rhetoric or represent a fundamental shift in the relationship.
The former, especially in light of the Bennelong by-election campaign, is likely to be seen as a temporary hurdle even though China believes it has been used as a scapegoat for political gain.
But a continuation of what state-controlled publications have criticised as ‘hysterical paranoia full of racial undertones’ could have consequences for Australian businesses taking advantage of the free-trade agreement between the two nations.
Australia’s ambassador in Beijing last week was summoned to a meeting with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to hear concerns about Mr Turnbull’s comments.
The ministry was ‘astonished’ Canberra was taking seriously reports of Chinese interference in the media, universities and politics.
Beijing was especially aggrieved about Mr Turnbull’s assertion that Australia would always stand up for its sovereignty.
A delegation of Australian journalists visiting China heard the same message during briefings from foreign ministry officials, government-aligned think tanks and academics.
They were told the otherwise valued Australia-China relationship was experiencing a ‘very bad period’.
Australia should not expect a business-as-usual relationship if it continued to make false comments about Chinese interference.
There was a risk China’s anger might manifest itself into a consumer-led boycott of Australian goods and services.
It would not be the first time Chinese consumers have vented their anger against another country.
When relations between Beijing and Manila plumbed new depths over territorial claims in the South China Sea, consumers boycotted goods from the Philippines.
While the Chinese government did not want ‘this kind of situation’ to develop against another country, the media delegation was told what consumers did was outside the control of authorities.
Australian agriculture exports – especially dairy, meat and wine – as well as complementary medicines are most at risk from a consumer boycott.
China is Australia’s number one export market, its largest source of international students and most valuable tourism market.
Mr Turnbull’s ‘stand up for sovereignty’ reference has drawn particular ire across the board in China.
Reference was repeatedly made to the mid-19th-Century Opium Wars, which led to the virtual colonisation of China by Britain and France.
There a bitter memories of an era dubbed the Century of Humiliation that was only brought to an end with reunification under Mao in 1949.
As a result, Chinese sovereignty was regarded as a ‘shrine’ even if the nation suffered because it did not interfere in the affairs of other countries, a government official said.
Australia was also accused of adopting a Cold War mentality towards China, by siding with the United States and forming a new quad-lateral strategic arrangement with Washington, Japan and India.
It was also suggested that while Australia and China enjoyed a good economic relationship, that did not mean the two nations were friends.
Academics argued Australia should adopt a role in the region that was more independent of the US, given the Trump administration’s sometimes confusing foreign policy signals.
* The writer visited China with a media delegation sponsored by the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs.