Standing up to bullies might be good advice for the playground but doesn't quite cut it when your tormentor is your biggest trading partner, as Australia is learning to its peril.
Exports of Australian wine and lobster, which surged thanks largely to China's rapidly growing middle-class, are now on life support. The barley and beef trade has been hit. Even coal, thought to be critical to China's economic machine, is suddenly dispensable. Only iron ore seems safe, for now.
While China has wielded trade as a weapon to punish Australia, frayed relations hit a new low. A Chinese foreign ministry official shared a fabricated image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan boy, seizing on the release of the Brereton report into alleged war crimes with the aim of blunting Canberra's criticism of Beijing over human rights.
Scott Morrison branded the image "repugnant" and demanded an apology, which Chinese officials brushed off and state-run media mocked. Opinion is mixed on the wisdom of Morrison's move. Some felt the PM had no choice but to make clear a line had been crossed. Others, however, believed he unnecessarily elevated a mid-level Communist bureaucrat by taking the bait and should have left the response to Foreign Minister Marise Payne and diplomats.
With relations seemingly at rock-bottom – although you'd be brave to rule out the possibility of them getting worse – AFR Weekend spoke to a cross-section of business figures and policy specialists about what comes next.
Australia China Business Council national president David Olsson says, as a circuit-breaker, Morrison should appoints a special envoy such as a former MP or senior business leader to visit China to try to repair the relationship.
He also suggests the government approve some Chinese foreign investment applications to show that recent tightening is not directed at China.
"China recognises that maybe they've pushed too far and if we can find a way that is face-saving for both sides we might be able to find a way through," Olsson says.
"Business can do what it can to keep business going but at the end of the day we're going to have to rely on the government to come up with a diplomatic solution."
Former federal minister Warwick Smith, who now heads the Business Council of Australia's China leadership group, counsels the government to persevere with strategic patience and embrace "principled realism", where differences in values don't overwhelm pragmatism.
Smith says Morrison was right to tell his MPs not to overreact this week to the Foreign Ministry's tweet.
"China has moved from assertiveness to aggressiveness, and aggressiveness doesn't adhere to a sensible strategy. We're still trying to fathom the Chinese strategy," he says.
"We need to hold our course and look to enhance dialogue opportunities. We've had 45 years of a constructive relationship with China. Trade is in the national interest."
Yun Jiang, managing editor of Australian National University's China Story blog and a former policy adviser in the departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Defence and Treasury, offers a grim diagnosis.
"It appears to me that both countries [are set] to continue this way and are not willing to step back," she says.
"From China's perspective, Australia is a lost cause. It thinks Australia will always follow the US no matter what so it won't spend any effort to improve the relationship.
"We shouldn't change our policies based on pressure from China. That will only give China more incentive to continue this way in the future.
"But Australia can change and do things differently."
She says blunders in the past include how the government made the foreign interference legislation overtly about China and Morrison's high-profile reaction to that tweet.
"We can still express our displeasure but don't have to do it in a way that annoys China unnecessarily," Jiang says.
The Australian government has been too cautious, hoping the problem will go away, counters Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings.
"Everyone rushes around saying 'Have we got the tone right?' while China's bad behaviour doesn't go analysed. That's precisely how Beijing wants us to be."
Jennings says China has been successful at getting Australia to act and behave in a way that suggests we are alone. He says the government should be more proactive in exposing China's wrongdoing to build global pressure on the regime.
"I think China is susceptible to naming and shaming, so I would be outing them more on cyber spying and domestic covert behaviour," he says. "There is no easy way forward and I think the best option for Australia is to work really hard to build a coalition of democracies and help us advance a united position. If China thinks it is losing ground globally rather than just with us, that may have the potential to change them."
China has bristled at Australia's criticism over issues such as the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and erosion of democracy in Hong Kong, but Australian director of Human Rights Watch Elaine Pearson says Canberra cannot allow Chinese bullying to silence it.
Like other experts, Pearson says the "safety in numbers" approach is the way Australia can continue to speak out without being singled out for retribution.
She says it is heartening that in international forums such as the United Nations, more and more countries are banding together, while the "rogue's gallery" supporting China is diminishing.
"Human rights abuses have gotten way worse under Xi Jinping and part of the reason that has happened is because of the absence of pressure from foreign governments," she says. "If we are going to get progress on human rights issues, Australia needs to work closely with other democracies. We shouldn't be silencing our criticism because of blowback from China."
Just shut up for a while. Every time someone says something, it just makes it worse.
— Former consul-general to Hong Kong Jocelyn Chey
Despite the current political tensions, Professor and former consul-general to Hong Kong Jocelyn Chey remains optimistic about Australia-China relations.
"I'm sure it's not beyond redemption. There is still a lot going between the two countries people are not aware of," she says.
"Students are still keen to come here. People involved in trade are maintaining open lines of communication. We have not put up the bamboo curtain again."
She has blunt advice for the Morrison government.
"Just shut up for a while. Every time someone says something, it just makes it worse."
One of Australia's most experienced diplomats, John McCarthy, agrees "the war of words has got to stop".
"We've got to look for a cooling-off period, and if that was us saying less then that's not a bad thing, and if the Chinese said and did less, that's not a bad thing too," he says.
McCarthy, whose diplomatic career took him to the US as ambassador, says the international atmosphere could change with the imminent arrival of Joe Biden in the White House.
"My view is a Biden administration is not going to go soft on China but will be more prepared to listen for opportunities for dialogue. In that case there might be room for improvement in China's relationship with countries like Australia and Canada."
Shanghai-based lawyer and adviser Michael Wadley says "people up here are generally watching with disbelief as the situation keeps unfolding".
"Just when you think we’ve hit a new low, up comes something else."
He says the Prime Minister's response this week to the tweet of a "lower level foreign affairs guy" was not well thought out and doubts whether the leaders in Singapore, Japan and South Korea would have reacted similarly.
And Wadley stresses the US is the big geopolitical relationship on China's radar.
"We are not the main game so stop pretending we are. If the phone doesn’t ring or get picked up, so what. Stop talking about it and causing further embarrassment and pressure."
Wadley recommends the government support those diplomats and China-focused business people who are still talking with their counterparts "so we are ready to move quickly when we are right to get back onto the field of play".
And he says there needs to be better engagement with the business community, which has been "rather brutally maligned along the way."
"They are patriotic and capable of thinking outside an amoral business box. Ask the diplomats on the ground and the politicians who visit and have time to engage when away from their local bubble."
Former intelligence analyst Ross Babbage says the challenge of a rising China goes beyond the problems Australia faces.
He says there has been a failure to follow closely enough the speeches of Xi Jinping, who is moving China closer towards becoming an autarky and commented recently China might have to fight a small war to avoid a much bigger one.
"With some of the language Xi has used in the past 12 months, if a US president had said that, it would have made headlines for weeks," says Babbage, who is now non-resident senior fellow at the US Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Babbage argues Australia, along with Japan and the US, should take the initiative and champion a "new security partnership" in the region.
It would not be a formal defence pact like NATO but rather a forum in which countries from the South Pacific and south-east Asia share information and advice on economic and information security.
"It would help those smaller states defend their own sovereignty. We had mechanisms like this in the Cold War and it would rally the world to hang together and prevent authoritarian bullies from getting away with it," he says.
Political tensions over a raft of issues have seen China respond economically, University of New South Wales trade law lecturer Weihuan Zhou says.
But he believes it could be domestic political pressures that could prompt Australia and China to walk back their brinkmanship.
"Given the series of events and gradual escalation and accumulation of tensions, I don't think they can be resolved through legal approaches or simply a diplomatic response."
"These tensions are hurting Australian citizens and having a negative impact on the Chinese people. Both governments are misreading the impact it is having on people."
Zhou says Australia doesn't have to walk away from its values but suggests the government shouldn't get ahead of the world, such as how it led the way on banning Huawei from 5G networks or calling for the COVID inquiry.
"What concerns China the most is discrimination, especially by an established economic partner," he says.
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