The fallout between Australia and China is escalating – Beijing has accused Canberra of behaving like America’s ‘‘roughneck’’ and has threatened to inflict even more pain on the Australian economy unless it stops so-called anti-Chinese actions.
"Australia will pay tremendously for its misjudgment,'' a searing editorial in the state-sanctioned China Daily has warned.
"With Australia mired in its worst recession in decades, it should steer clear of Washington's brinkmanship with China before it is too late.
"To put it simply, if Canberra continues to go out of its way to be inimical to China, its choosing sides will be a decision Australia will come to regret as its economy will only suffer further pain as China will have no choice but to look elsewhere if the respect necessary for cooperation is not forthcoming."
The threats came as a long-respected bipartisanship over how to deal with China frayed with Labor slamming the government for mishandling the relationship.
"We're seven years down the path of this government and there's not a single personal relationship with substance that exists between anybody in this government and anyone in the Chinese government,'' said deputy Labor leader Richard Marles.
"I mean, that is a situation which is completely hopeless."
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said it was "disappointing'' that China continued to refuse to engage and that the "ball was very much in China's court''.
Hundreds of Australian exporters were bracing to see if China implemented a ban on more than $6 billion in commodities on Friday after state-controlled media acknowledged the existence of a list of seven items that could be turned away from Chinese ports and airports.
These goods are coal, barley, timber, wine, copper, lobster and sugar.
Traders in China said they still did not know if an official ban would kick in on Friday. But many exporters said the damage had already been done with some wine companies halting shipments to China this week
Senator Birmingham played down suggestions Australia was a victim of the trade deal Donald Trump cut with China, which required China to buy $200 billion more in produce from the US over two years, potentially at the expense of countries like Australia.
"Could I rule out any impact at all? No, that would be hard to rule out,'' Senator Birmingham said.
"But is it likely that's the driver of the type of issues we're seeing at present? I think that's fairly unlikely as well."
He noted Chinese authorities "have given assurances, both publicly through their media spokespeople and privately, that there is no concerted action of discrimination against Australia".
"And we want to make sure that they live up to those commitments.''
Government sources speculated the escalation by Beijing via the China Daily could be related to the US election, in that China was sending a message about Australia cosying up to a Biden administration.
But Richard McGregor, senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, said it was an exercise in China piling on the pressure. That it appeared in the English language paper meant it was designed as a message "just for us'' and not local consumption.
"It's designed to reinforce the message from China that unless Australia changes course, there is a big price to pay,'' he said.
The China Daily said Scott Morrison's approach to China of "strategic patience and consistency", as outlined in a recent interview with The Australian Financial Review, was inconsistent "with his government's rash participation in the US administration's attempts to contain China".
It claims Canberra has undermined the relationship by "fuelling anti-China sentiment at home, baselessly sanctioning Chinese companies and aggressively sending warships to China's doorsteps".
These are references to foreign investment applications blocked by the government, and Australia sailing ships in international waters that Beijing illegally claims as Chinese territory.
"If this is Canberra's 'strategic patience', how will it act in a fit of pique?
"Canberra should realise it will get nothing from Washington in return for its collusion in its schemes, while Australia will pay tremendously for its misjudgment."
It claims its threats to block lobster imports, for example, are based on legitimate customs concerns and are not "economic coercion" or "retribution" for such acts as banning Huawei from the 5G contract or implementing foreign interference laws, as is widely believed in Australia.
It claims the hold up of shipments of lobster was motivated by concerns that imported seafood has been a source of coronavirus outbreaks in China. This is despite China being the original source of the virus.
"Unlike Washington, Beijing is not offering Canberra an either-or choice, but just reminding it to maintain its diplomatic independence and follow the norms of international relations. To be an ally of the US does not necessarily mean it has to be a roughneck in its gang,'' it said.
Mr Marles said "there are obviously difficulties and complexities in the relationship with China, which is exactly why you need personal relationships to add ballast to the situation".
"But right now, they can't speak to a single person in China. There are hundreds of thousands of jobs at stake. And really, I think people in those jobs would be looking to our government today and saying, what are you going to do about this?"
Senator Birmingham said it was "disappointing'' that China continued to refuse to engage.
"In terms of contact from Chinese ministers or with Chinese ministers and Australian ministers, the ball is very much in China's court. The Australian government stands willing to have that type of mature, responsible dialogue and we would welcome that being reciprocated by our counterparts,'' he said.