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Biden Need Only Look to Australia to See What to Expect From China
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Biden Need Only Look to Australia to See What to Expect From China

The CCP has increased its rhetorical attacks on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government in recent weeks.

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope all of you enjoy a healthy and happy holiday, at least as much as you can during this ongoing pandemic. 

America’s adversaries and enemies won’t break for the holiday, so let’s talk about one of the most pressing issues facing the incoming Biden administration: the aggressive behavior of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

On Wednesday, Xi Jinping formally congratulated Joe Biden on his victory. The Chinese government initially refrained from making any official statements about the election or its outcome. But eventually, about a week and a half after the election, the CCP publicly recognized Biden as the winner. And now Xi has weighed in personally. 

“Promoting healthy and stable development of China-U.S. relations not only serves the fundamental interests of the people in both countries, but also meets the common expectation of the international community,” Xi said, according to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Xi went on to say he hoped the “two sides will uphold the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, focus on cooperation, manage differences, advance the healthy and stable development of China-U.S. ties, and join hands with other countries and the international community to promote the noble cause of world peace and development.”

That sounds welcoming and benevolent. But as the Biden administration is about to learn—if the incoming national security officials don’t already know—is that the Chinese have mastered the art of saying one thing and doing another. Xi’s own rhetoric often parrots expressions one would expect to hear from liberal internationalists. He doesn’t really mean it.  

There is something of a bipartisan consensus in Washington that the old approach to China—waiting for economic liberalization and prosperity to bring about a political evolution—has failed. The U.S. is still trying to figure out how to best change courses. After four years of the Trump administration, the incoming Biden team will set its own agenda. Generally speaking, Biden isn’t expected to return to the pre-Trump era of wishful thinking with respect to Beijing’s intentions. But it remains to be seen just how far he is willing to go to contain and confront the CCP’s various machinations.

The Biden agenda may very well begin with bolstering America’s closest partners and allies, including members of the Five Eyes intelligence network. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the U.S.  share secrets pertaining to some of the most sensitive topics in the national security arena. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese are intentionally trying to undermine and weaken its members. Most recently, the CCP’s main target has been Australia.   

The CCP has increased its rhetorical attacks on Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government in recent weeks, and last week CCP diplomats leaked a list of grievances to the Australian Press. The two sides have been engaged in disputes over trade and other matters for months. But the memo, which repeats some of the CCP’s longstanding talking points, was intended to ratchet up tensions even further. A copy of the bullet point list can be read at the Sydney Morning Herald, which was one of the Australian press outlets to receive it.

The leaked grievances are entirely self-serving. But they do highlight the degree to which the CCP is engaged in double-speak. You’ll often hear Chinese diplomats speak of “non-interference”—implying that if Western powers leave the CCP alone, then it will leave America and its allies to their own affairs. In reality, the CCP interferes in American and Western matters all the time, using economic espionage and coercion to advance its agenda. So while “non-interference” may sound reasonable and even preferable, especially when it comes to mitigating the possibilities of open conflict, it is really a rhetorical shield. The CCP employs it to parry any attempt to highlight its own nefarious scheming. 

Consider this complaint: “An unfriendly or antagonistic report on China by media, poisoning the atmosphere of bilateral relations.” Although this English-language translation is rough, the CCP is clearly griping about the free Australian press. Unlike in China, where the media operates under the thumb of the state, the Aussie media doesn’t answer to Canberra. If the Australian government were to act on this complaint, then it would risk undermining a central Western freedom. And it’s not as if the CCP-dominated media is restrained when it comes to antagonistic reporting. Beijing’s preferred conduits regularly agitate against the Australians, the U.S., and any other party that criticizes the CCP’s agenda.

The CCP also complains that the Australian government endorsed calls for an “international independent inquiry” into the origins of COVID-19. Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomats portray this as “political manipulation” and part of an American “attack on China.” Here, again, the reality is different. There’s no question the Trump administration has highlighted the origins of the virus as part of its own rhetorical campaign, clumsily referring to it as the “Chinese virus.” But Beijing’s representatives have spread outright disinformation in this regard, even circulating claims that the U.S. military was responsible for spreading the contagion. Moreover, PM Morrison carefully couched his endorsement of an independent inquiry earlier this year with wording that was intended to avoid outright anti-Chinese animus. Obviously, he failed to avoid Beijing’s backlash. Given the CCP’s lack of transparency after the earliest outbreak in Wuhan, and initial reluctance to admit just how communicable COVID-19 really is, Morrison had every right to call for an independent investigation. 

The Australian government, like many others in the region, has objected to the CCP’s expansionist designs in the South China Sea. But Canberra’s decision to speak up is supposedly offensive, according to Beijing’s list of grievances. So, too, was the decision by Morrison’s government to revoke the visas issued to a handful of Chinese scholars on the grounds that they present security concerns. Beijing argues this is an example of “politicization and stigmatization,” which is poisoning the “normal exchanges and cooperation between China and Australia.” But it is well-established that the CCP uses researchers to steal trade secrets and other sensitive information in service of its military and other ambitions. Even if Canberra is wrong about the specific Chinese scholars who had their visas revoked (and that hasn’t been shown), the CCP’s track record in this regard is so poor that “normal” scholarly practices were tainted long ago. During the past four years, the U.S. has been forced to expose the CCP’s widespread espionage schemes, many of which rely on academic cover. 

The CCP’s chief objections to Australia’s behavior are, of course, economic. Beijing accuses Morrison’s government of restricting and interfering with China’s investments in Australia. Naturally, the CCP does the same with respect to foreign investment in mainland China, often requiring companies to forfeit the rights to key technologies and enter into uneven joint ventures with local firms. In 2018, under the previous government of PM Malcolm Turnbull, Canberra banned leading Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE from Australia’s 5G wireless rollout. Turnbull cited the security risks posed by a wireless company controlled by an authoritarian regime. The CCP is still steaming mad over the move. In its list of grievances, Beijing argues the “national security concerns” are “unfounded” and the ban was merely the result of U.S. “lobbying.” 

All of these issues, and more, now await the incoming Biden administration. The Trump administration was operating under the understanding that the threat posed by the CCP involved a series of interconnected challenges that couldn’t be easily separated. The CCP’s economic agenda serves its military strategy, which reinforces its political aims. In response, PM Morrison has been forced to walk a fine line with China, which is, after all, Australia’s largest trading partner. If the Biden team is going to seriously move to contain the CCP’s ambitions, then it will have to implement policies to bolster America’s closest allies, including the Australians.  

Photograph by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.