Bullied by Beijing, America’s Closest Allies Regret Saying ‘Yes’ to China

China was winning over the innermost circle of U.S. allies. Now it’s driving them away.

By Salvatore Babones, an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.
Supporters of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters gather during a demonstration at Martin Place in Sydney on Aug. 16, 2019.
Supporters of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters gather during a demonstration at Martin Place in Sydney on Aug. 16, 2019. SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images

On June 29, Australia will probably overlook an anniversary it would rather forget. Five years ago this month, Australia broke ranks with the United States to join one of China’s most important foreign-policy initiatives, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). It was the price Australia paid to get a free trade agreement with China, which had been stalled in endless negotiations for more than a decade. The Australian government tried to get the agreement over the line by entering into a comprehensive strategic partnership with China in 2014, but even that wasn’t enough to satisfy Beijing. Joining the AIIB in 2015 did the trick.The most trusted U.S. allies—the countries in the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network— have all agreed to such partnerships with China.

Australians may be surprised to discover that their country is one of China’s dozens of “strategic partners,” “comprehensive strategic partners,” and “comprehensive strategic cooperative partners,” terms Beijing uses to describe its formal relationships with other countries. The most trusted U.S. allies—the countries in the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network— have all agreed to such partnerships with China. Australia’s neighbors across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand also enjoy a comprehensive strategic partnership with China, while Canada’s relationship with China, though of longer standing, is merely an ordinary strategic partnership. The language around the U.K.-Chinese partnership may be the grandest of all: The two countries are locked together in a “global comprehensive strategic partnership for the 21st century,” per an agreement signed in October 2015.

The era of cooperation with China may be over soon. Australia, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand are beginning to regret saying “yes” to China’s strategic overtures. The leaders, once eager to assert a little independence from their often-overbearing superpower ally, now find themselves aligning with the United States to oppose the use of Huawei equipment in 5G networks, universities accepting Chinese money to host Confucius Institutes, gross human rights violations in Xinjiang, government repression in Hong Kong, and the militarization of the South China Sea. They are wary of appearing to support a U.S. president who is anathema to many in their own countries, but they increasingly support Donald Trump’s actual policy stances with regard to China. Each country has its own reasons for confronting China, but all of them are, in effect, falling in line with U.S. China policy.

In Canada, Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, has been detained in Vancouver since December 2018, pending extradition to the United States on charges related to the evasion of U.S. sanctions on Iran. In a move it insists is unrelated, China has charged two Canadian businesspeople with espionage in apparent retaliation. Huawei’s Meng is out on bail, but the two Canadians are being held under 24-hour surveillance in harsh conditions, largely incommunicado, and with limited food.

In Britain, the ruling Conservative Party, fresh from an internal crisis over allowing China’s Huawei to participate in building the country’s 5G wireless networks, has now united behind Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pledge of a path to full British citizenship for up to 3 million Hong Kong residents who hold or are eligible to apply for British National (Overseas) passports, which exclude work and residency rights. The pledge is in response to China’s new national security law for Hong Kong. The U.K. will also review the Huawei decision, made just four months ago. And Britain’s Office of Communications has ruled China’s state broadcaster CGTN out of compliance with Britain’s broadcasting rules, to boot.

Even New Zealand, which despite its Five Eyes membership has a perpetually strained relationship with the United States, has recently faced the wrath of China. Issues have included New Zealand’s support for Uighur rights and Taiwan’s membership of the World Health Organization.

But none of the United States’ closest allies has come to regret its China ties quite as much as Australia. When Australia led global calls for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic—a demand widely perceived as being targeted at China—China struck back with restrictions on Australian beef, ostensibly for health and safety reasons, and punitive tariffs on Australian barley. China has also warned its students to avoid Australia, threatening another key export industry: international education.

China has split Australia not just politically, but also geographically. In a bizarre assertion of local diplomatic independence, the Australian state of Victoria signed up to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trademark foreign-policy agenda, the Belt and Road Initiative. The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, did so in defiance of the national government, which has refused Chinese invitations to participate. Andrews is a member of the Australian Labor Party, which at the federal level opposes Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National Coalition. But Andrews’s rebellion is not a mere matter of party politics: The federal Labor Party also opposes Australia’s membership in the Belt and Road Initiative. It is a division stoked by China—and Chinese money.

Australia’s top universities, which until the coronavirus pandemic were dependent on Chinese student tuition for as much as a quarter of their revenues, have also gone all-out for China. In a case that has garnered global media attention, the University of Queensland (one of Australia’s elite Group of Eight universities) suspended one of its students for demonstrating against Chinese influence in Hong Kong—and on campus. As in the United States and other countries, Australian universities have faced protests over their acceptance of Chinese money to fund Confucius Institutes for the teaching of Chinese language and culture. Critics worry that this kind of funding comes with strings attached: in particular, the demand that universities silence student and staff criticism of China.

As the revelations of complicity pour out, the political mood in Australia has turned decisively against China. For years, the country’s establishment promoted stronger China ties as the key to economic success, with everyone from mining magnates to retired politicians seeming to cash in on the China boom. Even Bob Hawke, the late prime minister who in 1989 tearfully offered asylum to Chinese students in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, ultimately became a paid lobbyist for Chinese companies seeking to invest in Australia. Those chickens have now come home to roost, as some Australian commentators complained of a reactionary China panic even before the coronavirus came to stoke additional China fears.

The new mantra among Australia’s political leaders is that the country needs an “eyes wide open” approach to China. That’s a feeling echoed throughout the English-speaking world. Politicians who are wary of being too closely identified with Trump’s China-bashing are nonetheless finding their own reasons to be wary of China.Politicians who are wary of being too closely identified with U.S. President Donald Trump’s China-bashing are nonetheless finding their own reasons to be wary of China. For New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, it’s human rights. For Canada’s Justin Trudeau, it’s the fact that China’s favorability rating has fallen to a profound low of just 14 percent among Canadians. For Britain’s Boris Johnson, it’s Hong Kong. In a cross-party show of unity that would have been unimaginable one year ago, seven former British foreign secretaries have jointly urged the prime minister to take the lead in coordinating an international response to China’s new national security laws for Hong Kong.

Not long ago, both Ardern and Johnson were pushing for closer relations with Beijing. Trudeau was so cozy with China that his own Parliament started an investigation. Australia’s Morrison was equivocal but eager to emphasize that he would not pick sides in any dispute between the United States and China. All four have now shifted decisively toward Trump’s position on China, even as they avoid association with the U.S. president like the coronavirus. They have their own reasons for being suspicious of China, and those have little or nothing to do with pleasing Trump.

So although it would be inaccurate to say that Trump has won over the rest of the Five Eyes to his view of China, it is nonetheless clear that their policy positions have rapidly converged with his administration’s. As China pushes forward on all fronts, global public opinion—not just in the English-speaking countries—has turned decisively against China. As it becomes increasingly clear that China obstructed early international efforts to understand and control the coronavirus, those negative opinions will only harden. For three years, Beijing has counted on Trump’s personal unpopularity to score easy points with the United States’ closest allies. Now that all eyes are open, China will find it much harder to get its way.

Salvatore Babones is an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. Twitter: @sbabones