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China-Australia Relations Are Quickly Worsening. How Did They Get Bad?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tensions between Australia and China took a turn for the worse this week. It started on Twitter. A spokesman for China's foreign ministry tweeted a fabricated image of an Australian soldier with a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. NPR's John Ruwitch reports on how and why relations between the two Asia-Pacific powers soured.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: The tweet was from Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman known for being provocative. The image in his tweet was a reference to the devastating findings of Australia's recent inquiry into killings by its elite soldiers in Afghanistan. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an apology from Beijing.

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PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON: It is deeply offensive. The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post.

RUWITCH: China refused to apologize. It's often criticized for its own human rights abuses and sees a double standard in Australia's indignation over the tweet. But the row highlights how ugly things have gotten, and it's not just rhetoric. In recent months, Beijing has put up barriers to Australian exports.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Gloves are off in Australia's trade dispute with China, with Beijing today slapping a huge tariff on our wine exports, putting billions of dollars' worth of sales in doubt.

RUWITCH: Besides chardonnay and shiraz, Australia has been a critical source of the commodities that have fueled China's spectacular growth. And Australia's reaped huge benefits, selling China everything from coal and iron ore to beef. By 2017...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: ...Things seemed to be going so well that Australia was even trying to hook China on one of its most popular sports, Australian-rules football.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: But the political undercurrents had already begun to shift. A Chinese influence-peddling scandal ensnared an Australian senator, who would eventually resign. The government soon introduced legislation to curb foreign interference in politics. It didn't point fingers, but the prime minister at the time, Malcolm Turnbull, spoke in Mandarin to make it clear.

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MALCOLM TURNBULL: Modern China was founded in 1949 with these words - (speaking Mandarin) - the Chinese people have stood up. It was an assertion of sovereignty. It was an assertion of pride. And we stand up. And so we say (speaking Mandarin) - the Australian people stand up.

RUWITCH: Yun Jiang, a former policy adviser to the Australian government, says things then went from bad to worse. In mid-2018, Australia became the first country to block 5G gear from the Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei.

YUN JIANG: And not only that, it's made a lot of effort in encouraging other countries to follow Australia's lead, basically. So that really infuriated China.

RUWITCH: Then, after the outbreak of the pandemic, Prime Minister Morrison said the WHO should be able to send independent inspectors to China, where the virus first appeared. Beijing has since slapped tariffs on Australian barley, blocked beef imports and placed an unofficial ban on Aussie coal. Then last week, it went after the wine. And there's a wider dimension to this bilateral feud. James Curran, who teaches history at the University of Sydney, explains.

JAMES CURRAN: Pushing back against China is now seen as a way not only to protect Australian sovereignty, which is the legitimate right of every government, but it is now seen as a way to win alliance kudos in Washington.

CURRAN: A Washington where for four years President Trump has berated China on everything from trade to the coronavirus and where there is bipartisan support for a hard line. Curran says the tough talk also plays well domestically in Australia, where public opinion toward China has tanked. Meanwhile, Beijing isn't showing much willingness to compromise. And Yun Jiang, the former Australian policy adviser, says that's intentional.

YUN: It is sending a message to other countries as well, at the same time, basically saying to other countries, this is what happens if you are going to follow Australia's lead.

RUWITCH: The toughening rhetoric only entrenches both sides, she says.

YUN: It actually empowers the hardliners in both countries.

RUWITCH: And that makes finding an off ramp harder. John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN SPHERES SONG, "ISHONSAX") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.