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Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard told Sky News Beijing is “using Australia as a proxy punching bag” for the United States.

As one of Australia’s longest-serving prime ministers, Howard made efforts to deepen the nation’s relationship with China. But since leaving office in 2007, he has perceived Beijing to become more “aggressive,” resulting in a change in its attitude towards the rest of the world.

“The leadership of China 15 years ago, its attitude to the rest of the world was one of co-operation,” he said on March 4. “That’s not the case now.”

Howard believes Australia did not ruin its relationship with China, contrary to some politicians who accused the Liberal coalition government of contributing to the Australia-China relationship breakdown.

“I don’t think Australia has mucked up the relationship with China,” he said. “I think China has decided to be more aggressive.”

“You can’t just pick up the phone and say ‘Hey Xi, wanna have a chat?’ because he doesn’t want to have a chat. If he wants to have a chat, it’s a chat on his terms,” Howard said.

Diplomatic tensions between the two nations started escalating when the Australian government called for an independent inquiry into the CCP (Chinese Communist Party virus (novel coronavirus). In retaliation, Beijing imposed punitive economic sanctions on a number of Australian products.

Howard says the challenging relationship with Beijing should be handled patiently by the federal government.

“We have a lot at stake, we have a great trade with China,” he said. “It will hurt our country, it will affect our living standards if there’s a catastrophic fall in the export trade to China because it’s our best export destination.”

A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) noted that Australia is the most economically dependent on China out of all advanced economies in the world. This gives Beijing confidence to influence Australian society through economic coercion, break Australia from the U.S. alliance and in turn lessen America’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Beijing appears to be increasingly enraged by Australia taking the lead on what it views as hostile initiatives—first by playing a leading role in spotlighting and countering Chinese interference and more recently by calling for a global independent inquiry [into the origins of COVID-19],” report author Amy Searight said.

Despite the heavy trade sanctions on Australian exports, the country actually experienced a trade surplus with China in December 2020.

Additionally, the trade war has alerted the nation to its reliance on China and has since been working to diversify its trading partners.

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