China is escalating its punishment diplomacy

Just two days before President Xi Jinping was scheduled to speak to Chancellor Angela Merkel last week, China blocked all pork imports from Germany.

The ostensible reason was the death of a single German wild boar from African swine fever, a disease already endemic in China. But some analysts jumped to a different conclusion. To them, this was the latest example of Beijing’s coercive commercial diplomacy — an evolving facet of Chinese statecraft that has come to dominate relations with several countries.

This coercion is never quite acknowledged publicly. As with German pork, Beijing announced it has blocked imports or opened investigations into a country’s products because of safety concerns or some other bureaucratic excuse. But these actions almost always target nations that have recently displeased Beijing; and they are intended to force a change in policy or behaviour. Blocking pork imports was a warning to Berlin not to join Washington’s campaign to isolate Beijing and to stop criticising China’s human rights record.

Australia provides an instructive example. Sino-Australian ties have been frosty for some time but plummeted into deep freeze in April after Canberra called for an independent investigation into the origins and initial handling of coronavirus. Within…

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