Australia's ban on Chinese telecoms giant Huawei's involvement in its future 5G networks and its crackdown on foreign covert interference are testing Beijing's efforts to project its power overseas.
In its latest maneuver, China sent three scholars to spell out in interviews with Australian media and other appearances steps to mend the deepening rift with Beijing — a move that appears to have fallen flat.
In a recent press conference at the Chinese Embassy in Canberra, Chen Hong, the head of Australian studies at East China Normal University, accused Australia of acting as a "pawn" for the United States in lobbying other countries against Huawei's involvement in the nascent 5G networks.
"Australia has been in one way or another, so to speak, pioneering this kind of anti-China campaign, even some kind of a scare and smear campaign against China," Chen said. "That is definitely not what China will be appreciating, and if other countries follow suit, that is going to be recognized as extremely unfriendly," he said.
After meetings in Beijing last week, Richard Marles, the opposition's defense spokesman, assessed the relationship as "terrible."
A growing number of Australians are convinced that Beijing has been using inducements, threats, espionage and other clandestine tactics to influence their politics — methods critics believe Beijing might be honing for use in other western democracies.
“Australia is seen as a test bed for Beijing's high-pressure influence tactics," said Clive Hamilton, author of “Silent Invasion," a best seller that focuses on Chinese influence in Australia.
“They are testing the capacity of the Australian democratic system to resist," he said.
Still, Australian officials have downplayed talk of a diplomatic freeze. They must balance a growing wariness toward China and their desire for strong ties with the U.S. with the need to keep relations with their resource-rich country's largest export market on an even keel.
Australia relies on China for one-third of its export earnings. Delays in processing of Australia exports of coal and wine at Chinese ports have raised suspicions of retaliation by Beijing.
While Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared to side with President Donald Trump on the issue of China's trade status during a recent visit to Washington, he sought to temper suggestions by Trump that he had expressed “very strong opinions on China" in their closed-door meeting.
"We have a comprehensive, strategic partnership with China. We work well with China," Morrison replied.
Trump and Morrison did agree that China has outgrown trade rule concessions allowed to developing nations, advantages it insists it should still be able to claim.
Australia also chose to side with the U.S, in shutting Huawei, the world's biggest telecom gear producer, out of its next generation 5G rollout on security grounds.
Huawei, and the Chinese government, objected to that, saying the security concerns were exaggerated for the sake of shutting out competition. But Huawei still renewed a sponsorship deal with an Australian rugby team, saying it hopes the ban will be lifted.
Morrison, the prime minister, has won praise from the Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times for standing up for Gladys Liu, the first Chinese-born lawmaker to be elected to Australia's Parliament, when she was attacked for her associations with the United Front Work Department of the Chinese Communist Party, whose mission is to exert influence overseas.
Hong Kong-born Liu, a conservative, was elected in May to represent a Melbourne district with a large population of ethnic Chinese voters. She says she has resigned from such organizations and any honorary positions she might have held, some possibly without her "knowledge or consent."
Morrison accused her critics of smearing the 1.2 million Chinese living in Australia.
That was a "decent gesture," the Global Times said. But while it seeks to control damage from the tensions with Beijing, the Australian government has been moving to neutralize its influence by banning foreign political donations and all covert foreign interference in domestic politics.
Opposition lawmakers likened Liu's situation to that of Sam Dastyari, who resigned as a senator in 2017 over his links to Chinese billionaire political donor Huang Xiangmo.
Huang successfully sued Australian media outlets for defamation over the allegations of his involvement in Chinese political interference. But he lost his Australian permanent residency after it was discovered that his company had paid Dastyari's personal legal bills. Huang also appeared with him at a news conference for Chinese media where Dastyari supported Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea, contradicting Australia's bipartisan policy.
Chen and the other two Chinese scholars recently dispatched to Australia to try to sway public opinion insisted China was without blame.
"If we're talking about Australia-China relations, I think the responsibility totally is on the Australian side," Chen said. "China always promotes friendship and mutual benefits between our two countries."
The Chinese scholars singled out for criticism Hamilton and another Australian author, John Garnaut, who has described Australia as the canary in the coal mine of Chinese Communist Party interference.
Hamilton's book was published last year, but only after three publishers backed out, fearing retaliation from Beijing. It became a top seller.
Hamilton told a U.S. congressional commission last year that Beijing was waging a "campaign of psychological warfare" against Australia, undermining democracy and silencing its critics.
In separate testimony, Garnaut, a former government security adviser, told the House of Representatives Arms Services Committee that China was seeking to undermine the U.S.-Australian security alliance.
In 2016, the government commissioned Garnaut to write a classified report that found the Chinese Communist Party has been seeking to influence Australian policy, compromise political parties and gain access to all levels of government.
He has said Australia is reacting to a threat that other countries are only starting to grapple with.
"This recognition has been assisted by the sheer brazenness of Chinese President Xi Jinping's drive for global influence and by watching Russian President Vladimir Putin and his agents create havoc across the United States and Europe," Garnaut wrote.
"In the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, it is far more difficult to dismiss foreign interference as a paranoid abstraction," he added.
Garnaut, whose friend Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun has been detained in Beijing since January on suspicion of espionage, declined to comment to The Associated Press.
China wants to make an example of Australia, said Chinese-born Sydney academic Feng Chongyi, who was detained for 10 days and interrogated about his friend Garnaut's investigation while visiting China in 2017.
"For the last two decades, Australia has been taken for a soft target because of this myth of economic dependence on China, so they believe they have sufficient leverage to force Australia to back off," said Feng, a professor of China studies at the University of Technology in Sydney.
"They are extremely upset that Australia somehow in the last two years has taken the lead in what we call the democratic pushback" against Chinese interference, he said.