South Korean President Moon Jae-in has arrived in China with 200 business people, a sign of thaw in frosty relations with its major trading partner.
As tensions rise between the Turnbull government and Beijing, South Korea’s experience is a cautionary tale.
Moon and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet on Thursday to discuss ways to “normalise” relations. Chinese tourism to South Korea plunged 70 per cent this year.
Beijing banned travel agencies selling group tours as retaliation for South Korea installing a US anti-missile system to protect it from North Korea. China claims the THAAD radar can spy deep into Chinese territory. South Korean retailer Lotte was forced to close stores after failing “fire safety” inspections.
Along with visa bans on pop stars, and an unofficial boycott and protests by Chinese consumers, China’s anger cost South Korean businesses $US7.5 billion ($9.9 billion) in the past year, the Asian Institute for Policy Studies estimates.
There is no indication, yet, that Australia is in the same boat. There should be no doubt, though, that Beijing’s anger at the perceived “anti-China” statements of the Turnbull government is unlike anything directed at Australia in recent times.
Australian business people in China are keeping their heads down, hoping this will blow over.
But on Wednesday the Chinese newspaper Global Times editorialised that claims of Chinese infiltration in Australia had spread to New Zealand and Germany like an “infectious disease”.
It warned: “The esteem with which Chinese regard certain Western countries will be downsized, as it becomes necessary for Beijing to retaliate. China needs to figure out tactics that can silently make Western institutions and individuals truly feel the pain.”
The editorial said Beijing’s practice of refusing visas to pop stars could be applied to “provocative Western politicians as a form of deterrence”.
Given “the Australian leader” is the only Western politician to be almost named by the Foreign Ministry on the issue, was the Global Times calling for a visa ban on Turnbull?
The Chinese language editorial said passive boycotts alone won’t work to stop “absurd” accusations.
Australian businesses in China are wary of South Korean-style unofficial boycotts, and the stringent application of minor red tape, or any change in Chinese consumer sentiment towards Australia’s “clean and green” products.
There had already been much tea-leaf reading on whether a temporary ban on Australian beef (later resolved) by Chinese customs was related to the new strident language out of Canberra.
Trade Minister Steven Ciobo, one of the few Australian ministers to have repeatedly visited Beijing this year, instead described the ban as a labelling situation “quickly” resolved.
(This week, Ciobo is pumping out press releases on the importance of Chinese tourists who spend $10 billion each year in Australia.)
Recently, South Korea’s trade with China has shot up again. What changed? South Korea’s government.
To strike a thaw, Moon suspended further THAAD installations. But he hasn’t said it will be removed.
Beijing is likely watching the Bennelong by-election with interest, as Labor campaigns on Turnbull’s “China phobia”.
One key difference with the missile shield dispute: China’s beef with Australia is about words, more easily resolved than a multi-million dollar US defence system on the doorstep.