Monday, November 30, 2020

Seafarers Bearing the Brunt of Chinese Political Wrath Towards Australia

Ships Crews Have Been Waiting Months to Unload with No End in Sight
Shipping News Feature

CHINA / AUSTRALIA – The Chinese attempt to bully Australia into toeing the party line has been gaining some attention recently in the international press. Most reports focus on the value of the approximately 5.7 million tonnes of coal currently sitting in the holds of sixty-six bulk carriers that are languishing off the Chinese coast after being refused permission to dock.

However few have commented on the consequences for crews, some of whom have been trapped on board the vessels, anchored out at sea and in limbo since June. Currently it is believed that over a thousand seafarers are trapped as a result of the row, which just seems to be becoming more and more vitriolic.

Sino-Australian relations have deteriorated rapidly since April, when Australia’s Primer Minister, Scott Morrison, called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. China rejected the suggestion and went on the offensive. Initially heavy tariffs were placed on Australian barley and beef, but that list has grown to include a 100% duty on Australian wine as ‘an anti-dumping measure’.

Well and truly on the offensive the Chinese government, via their embassy in Canberra, gave a dossier of fourteen points to the Australian press on November 18. In it they stated that the Australian government needed to redress wrongs done to the Chinese government as: ‘China is angry. If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy’. Hardly the language of diplomacy.

In addition to the issue of a Coronavirus inquiry, the Chinese list of grievances included Australian government funding for ‘anti-China research’ at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, raids on Chinese journalists and the cancellation of academic visas, interfering in China's affairs in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, banning Huawei from the 5G network in 2018 and blocking 10 Chinese foreign investment deals across the infrastructure and agriculture sectors.

In response, the Australian government had up to now been trying to downplay the spat but remained firm on not caving to Chinese pressure. In statements from various members of the government and ministries, emphasis has been placed on initiating talks between the two countries to resolve the dispute.

Considering that China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, such a policy is understandable. But it also explains China’s belief that it can use trade sanctions to force Australia to comply. In 2019 China took 27.9% of Australian exports and the relationship is calculated to be worth A$252 billion (US$186 billion / £139.7 billion).

However, faced with Australian intransigence the Chinese government seems to be resorting to ever more bizarre tactics. On November 30 a graphic image was tweeted by a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry. It showed an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of a veiled child, a clear reference to the investigation currently underway into war crimes committed by members of the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan.

The image has been dismissed as (and clearly is) a construct by the Chinese but its publication drew an irate response from Morrison, who is demanding an apology from the Chinese government. With the battle lines becoming more entrenched, neither side appears to have any intention of backing down.

And so the plight of the stranded sailors will continue. With no permission to land in China and no other market needing the amount of coal that is just sitting there, it appears that they are trapped despite international agreements on the amount of time crew can stay at sea.

Photo: A censored version of the Chinese Twitter image.