China has declared Australia must take the blame for “a sharp downturn” in relations between the two countries, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman saying all responsibility is on “some people in Australia (who) tend to regard China’s development as a threat.”
Relations between Australia and China have been frosty for years, but the situation deteriorated rapidly after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in April called for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Chinese government dubbed Morrison’s proposal “political manipulation.” From May onwards, lucrative Australian exports to China including wine, barley and beef have faced obstacles from China – including high tariffs, anti-subsidy investigations and lengthy delays clearing customs.
In September, the last two reporters from Australian news organizations in China had to be evacuated after they were aggressively questioned by authorities over a national security case involving Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist working for Chinese state media.
In an interview with Australian media published Sunday, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said the “ball is very much in China’s court” to resolve trade tensions, adding that he hoped the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement in the past week would help resolve the dispute between the two governments.
The RCEP, which was signed on Sunday, is a huge trade agreement which brings together 14 countries in the Asia Pacific, including China and Australia, in a massive free trade deal.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian made it plain that there was no truce in sight during his daily news conference in Beijing Tuesday. Zhao said the Chinese government bore no blame for the breakdown in relations.
“(They) have subsequently taken a series of wrong moves related to China, which is at the root cause of China-Australia relations taking a sharp downturn and stuck in the current difficult situation … the responsibility for causing this situation doesn’t lie with China at all,” he said.
Zhao described three areas in which Australia had displeased the Chinese government – one of which was Morrison’s decision to call for an international inquiry. “(This) seriously interfered with international cooperation on pandemic prevention and control,” he added.
The spokesman denounced Australia for its attempts to crack down on alleged foreign interference in its domestic politics, a campaign Beijing believes was targeted at China.
Zhao also berated Australia for repeatedly commenting on human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as the Chinese military’s threatening behavior toward the self-governed island of Taiwan. “These practices have grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs and seriously hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” Zhao said.
Speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Wednesday, Birmingham said Canberra wanted a “mutually beneficial relationship” with China – which he said he had “reinforced time and again.”
“It doesn’t mean that we will compromise at all in terms of our values, our security, our interests, but it does mean that the door is open from the Australian perspective,” he said.
“We have reached out at every possible level and pathway.”
Zhao’s comments came after Australia and Japan agreed “in principle” to a landmark defense treaty between the two countries, during a meeting in Tokyo between Prime Minister Morrison and Japanese leader Yoshihide Suga.
Birmingham said Wednesday the deal should have “no bearing” on Australia’s relationship with China. However it is the latest in a series of moves by Australia and Japan to deepen their military ties, with the Chinese government doubling down on its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, as well as increasing military drills targeted at Taiwan.
According to a statement from Morrison’s office, the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) “will facilitate greater and more complex practical engagement between the Australian Defense Force and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces” and “will also support our joint involvement in broader multilateral exercises.”
In his first face-to-face meeting with Suga, Morrison thanked the Japanese Prime Minister’s predecessor Shinzo Abe for six years of negotiation on the agreement.
CNN’s Sophie Jeong contributed to this article.