Sino-Australian ties dig new depths around submarines, trade and coral
SYDNEY – China and Australia are trading swift blows again, taking their already strained relationship to new lows and even undermining academic cooperation on an issue as universal as climate change.
The Beijing Department of Commerce this week lodged a complaint with the World Trade Organization over Australia’s old tariffs on railway wheels, wind turbines and stainless steel sinks, days after Canberra seized the China’s 200% WTO tariffs on Australian wine.
Also this week, a UNESCO committee chaired by China recommended that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef be listed as ‘endangered’, threatening the coral reef’s status as a World Heritage Site and urging Australia’s Minister to the Environment to complain that this decision had “political reasons behind it”.
Australia, for its part, joined more than 40 countries in a statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council, urging China to allow the UN to investigate reports of serious abuses against its Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang.
A more curious development, however, occurred earlier this month when Australia’s leading scientific research institution abandoned a joint program with China that is studying climatic conditions in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica. The cancellation by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) follows comments from Mike Burgess, Australian Director General of Security and head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, hinting that the project could help China to wage submarine warfare.
“There’s a lot of activity around modeling ocean temperature and how it’s modeled and calculated,” said Burgess. “It’s great for understanding climate and modeling climate. It’s also great if you’re a submariner.”
Analysts at the Australian think tank believe Burgess was referring to “dual-use” research in which scientific findings can also open avenues for improving military might. But some critics also suggest that CSIRO’s response puts Australia on a slippery slope.
“This is where national security officials took a three-step leap forward,” Professor James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute in Sydney, told Nikkei Asia.
“They assume we’re on a long-term trajectory for a war with China. So if that’s your starting point, then it’s very easy to take that back in time and start looking at the research on the climate change as a potential threat to Australia’s national security.
Laurenceson added, “If research between Australia and China on climate change is interpreted as dual-use research, meaning it also has military applications, God help us. Because if this research can be categorized that way, I’m sure you can find many more examples that national security officials consider dual use as well. “
Some, however, have a more skeptical view of the climate business, connecting the dots between civilian and military efforts.
Australia’s counterpart to the project, the Qingdao National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology, has a formidable array of scientific and naval assets, according to Anthony Bergin, senior researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
In a special report titled “Eyes Wide Open – Managing the Australia-China Relationship in Antarctica,” Bergin writes that the Qingdao institution runs the joint lab for high-end marine equipment with China Shipbuilding Industry Corp., the most major producer of warships in China.
This laboratory, he says, “specializes in submarine delivery equipment and advanced oceanographic survey equipment.” And the Qingdao organization “also operates the joint military-civilian maritime fusion laboratory with the Naval Submarine Academy.”
“The Naval Submarine Academy is responsible for the training of submariners of the People’s Liberation Army in submarine warfare and engages in underwater acoustic engineering, underwater munitions technology. and combat simulation. “
Joined by Nikkei, Bergin conceded that without Chinese funding Australian scientists would be unable to produce the same volume of research. But he stressed that “clearly, if research carries risks associated with military applications, we must be extremely careful.”
Bergin also said that China’s interests in Antarctica could be another issue, although he doesn’t think the Qingdao affair “closes all opportunities” for cooperation in the freezing south.
“I would say it’s a common good for the world if we understand what’s going on with climate change there,” he said. “We just need to make sure that our intelligence agencies regularly brief scientists and Antarctic officials about China’s aspirations, its interests in Antarctica, the risks that there might be in particular forms of research. , that may mean that some scientists need to be checked for security. or cleared, which some of them may not like. “
When asked for his opinion on allegations that China, as chairman of the UNESCO committee that said the Great Barrier Reef was in danger, retaliated against Australia for its decision to end the research project and other perceived slights, Bergin said it was plausible.
The latest sparring comes as some in Australian business and politics become frustrated with the apparent inability or unwillingness of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government to ease tensions. In a high-profile challenge to the prime minister, the prime minister of Australia’s top exporting state on June 15 urged the federal government to stop opposing Beijing, Reuters reported.
“It is not about bowing down to other countries and giving in,” Western Australian Prime Minister Mark McGowan told a conference on the oil and gas industry. “There has to be a national reset in this relationship.”
Overall, however, the Australian public has an increasingly grim view of their country’s largest trading partner, according to the latest research. A new Lowy Institute poll released on Wednesday shows that 63% of Australian respondents see China as a security threat, compared to just 34% who see it as an economic partner.
This is a sharp turnaround compared to 2018, when 82% considered it a mainly economic partner.
The relationship has steadily deteriorated in recent years, with Australia banning Chinese company Huawei Technologies from its 5G infrastructure for security reasons in 2018, and the Morrison government calling for an impartial investigation into COVID-19 last year. . China then imposed high tariffs on a multitude of Australian products, not only wine, but also barley, lobsters and more.