Scott Morrison China
Xi Jinping and Scott Morrison (Image: AAP)

One potential side-effect of the global coronavirus pandemic: Australia could see a historic reversal of its closeness with China.

As the pandemic continues, and even beyond that, we can expect policies favouring domestic manufacturing to be viewed far more sympathetically than they have for years. Our factories are all in China now and this offshore manufacturing of essential goods is starting to look reckless.

At the same time, global travel has screeched to a halt. The increasingly large flows of people between Australia and China have stopped. Will they recover?

It seems likely to be a long time before international jaunts become so easy and abundant as they were in 2019, and we may have to make do with a much smaller contribution from one of our biggest tourism partners.

But it’s not just these practical aspects of the pandemic that are driving China and Australia apart. There is a political aspect too.

Anti-China sentiment

China’s government has brought criticism on itself for failing to eliminate the wildlife markets where the virus first jumped to humans; and then for under-reporting viral spread.

These failures of Chinese governance should be prosecuted in multilateral and bilateral discussions. But they are also fuelling popular anti-Chinese sentiment. 

China’s state apparatus deserves a good deal of criticism. It is an anti-democratic authoritarian regime that is slowly oppressing Hong Kong, imprisoning Uighurs in frightful “re-education camps”, building a cult of personality around Xi Jinping, and playing dangerous games of brinksmanship in the South China Sea. 

We must take that into account when making foreign policy. But a popular upsurge of anti-China sentiment is a dangerous thing.

We have seen unsubstantiated rumours of “busloads of Asians” stripping supermarkets, and criticism in the Nine papers of businesses for sending medical supplies to China when it was the epicentre of the pandemic. There is even a wild petition on calling for the government to check every shipping container bound for China “and remove everything to do with groceries”.

That might sound crazy, but at the same time the Australian government has changed the law to permit five years jail time for anyone exporting hand sanitiser.

We are a small country and a trading nation. We are not America. Trade wars are likely to rebound and hit us hard. Ask dairy farmers if they’d like China to stop buying their milk powder. 

Racism rebounds

The general upswing in negative sentiment towards China makes life very hard for Asian people in Australia. Around 2% of Australia’s population was born in China, and there are many more second- and third-generation migrants on top of that. Racial discrimination against this substantial group (and others) is already being reported.

Negative sentiment also increases the chance of a breakdown in geopolitics. People on Twitter are calling on their governments to #NukeChina and, while that won’t happen, the chance of a skirmish in the South China Sea is heightened when Sinophobia is peaking.

China is always pushing the boundaries. In February its jets flew into Taiwanese airspace. A month later, the US redoubled its commitment to Taiwan

This should frighten us all. Any conflict over Taiwan, or other islets in the region is going to pose an enormous problem for Australia. Not so much because we will be torn between our old ally and our new trading partner. But because we will certainly choose democratic values over dollars and suffer economically.

For these reasons, we must engage constructively with China, while keeping racism out of the discourse and resisting knee-jerk reactions against trade.

Decoupling from China is a wise idea, but it must be done in a way that protects Chinese-Australians and avoids immiserating us all.