Letter from the editor: Vineyard diplomacy against China’s ‘bullying’

Vineyards at the Barwick Estate winery in Australia. Photo by Marianna Massey/Corbis via Getty Images

Australia wants you to drink more wine. Specifically, the country wants you to buy more of the country’s own bottled and fermented grapes as a protest against “bullying” by China. 

Allow me to explain.

For months now, Australia and China have been locked in a heated diplomatic row that began after Canberra demanded an independent inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic in April. In response, Beijing has slapped sanctions on some Australian beef, barley, wine and several other of the country’s exports.

This is no small thing for the Aussies, given that China is the country’s largest trading partner, amounting to US$103 billion in exports last year. China’s wine tariffs of up to 212 per cent on Australian producers are particularly severe. Australia is the fifth-largest exporter of wine in the world, exporting approximately 60 per cent of its overall production—39 per cent of that to mainland China.  

Things escalated last month when a Chinese official made headlines across Australia by threatening, in a deliberately leaked government document, “If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.” 

And just this week, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson posted a fake image on Twitter of an Australian special forces soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child cradling a lamb with his head wrapped in an Australian flag, a nod to Australia’s investigation into its alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an apology from the Chinese government and asked Twitter to take down the image. 

Even Canada’s foreign affairs minister, François-Philippe Champagne, issued a statement (through his press secretary) on the matter: “We were shocked to see the fabricated image posted by a Chinese government official,” said Syrine Khoury.

Australia’s allies have rallied to its defence in a “spirited” campaign across 19 countries encouraging their citizens to drink more Australian wine.

“This isn’t just an attack on Australia. It’s an attack on free countries everywhere,” said Kimberley Kitching, an Australian senator, in a video produced by the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a cross-party group of legislators seeking to reform how democratic nations approach China.

Miriam Lexmann, a member of the European parliament from Slovakia, invited people to “stand against [Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s authoritarian bullying.”

While there are two Canadian delegates on IPAC, notably, no Canadian official was shown in the global video campaign. 

IPAC was formed to hold China accountable for human rights abuses, and on that front, even in the midst of a trade fight, Australia has not been shy. Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne has criticized the Chinese government for its “repressive measures” against minorities in the Xinjiang region and for eroding rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.

Canada is, of course, locked in its own dispute with Beijing over the detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, detained in a Chinese prison cell now for 726 days. Meanwhile, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou remains under house arrest in Vancouver, fighting an extradition request from the United States to face charges in New York over allegations of bank fraud and violations of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the U.S. Justice Department was in discussions on a plea deal with Meng’s lawyers that could turn the tide on the stalemate, and ultimately lead to the release of the two Michaels. 

But lest anyone think that a resolution on those two fronts will result in a kinder, gentler Beijing, all they need to do is look at Australia.

The rapid deterioration of the Beijing-Canberra relationship is more than a bilateral spat. It demonstrates how a bolder, assertive China can use its massive economic scale to intimidate nations, something Canada is learning firsthand.

That intimidation can also come via the poaching of tech talent. As the Financial Times reported this week, veteran engineers and high-level executives are leaving top U.S. chip-design toolmakers for Chinese rivals.

We’ve been warned. Those looking to China for economic opportunities should be level-headed about what risks they face. And, perhaps, have a glass of sauvignon blanc in support of their Australian friends.