Australia is suddenly facing a broad economic assault from China, by far its largest trading partner. Last week, Beijing imposed tariffs of more than 200 percent on imports of Australian wine, essentially shuttering the industry’s largest export market. China has halted shipments of Australian coal, leaving ships stranded off China’s coast, and has blocked or restricted imports of a dozen other products, including Australian beef, sugar and timber. The sanctions so far have affected one-third of all Australian exports to China.
It’s all Chinese retaliation for moves by the Australian government that have irritated Beijing, which presented Canberra with an extraordinary list of 14 grievances last month. They included Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call for an impartial international investigation into the origins of COVID-19, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, as well as Australia’s ban on procurement from Chinese telecoms giant Huawei and restrictions on Chinese investment acquisitions.
Over the weekend, Australia’s trade minister announced the government’s response: He will bring a case against China at the World Trade Organization. And not against the whole of Chinese actions, but against one small piece—China’s 80 percent tariff on imports of Australian barley. Asked to explain the rather modest move in the face of massive Chinese provocation, the trade minister, Simon Birmingham, said that, “Australia stands by the rules-based system for international trade, and if you stand by the rules-based system, you should also use that rules-based system.”