Most people are familiar with the rules of football, especially concerning yellow and red cards. A yellow card is shown to players who contravene the rules of play in various ways such as unsportsmanlike conduct or a delay of the game. Players have to be extra careful once they are issued a yellow card because if they get a second one, they are dismissed from the game.

A red card is reserved for more serious offences, such as when a player commits a flagrant foul or touches the ball intentionally with their hand. Because of the brazen nature of the offence, the player is immediately ejected from the game.

Donald Trump. File Photo: White House.

All sports have rules of conduct that players and fans are acutely aware of. And although referees and officials have discretion over the severity of the penalty, there is a tacit understanding that one must play by the rules.

Against this backdrop, we enter the present political world order where countries also establish rules among themselves for conduct related to trade, commerce and diplomacy among others. Even when the rules are hard and fast, two countries can still bicker amongst themselves about how the other side is not playing fair.

Recently, when the United States imposed tariffs on the goods of various countries, complaints about violating notions of fair play were raised among those countries and – in some cases – retaliatory tariffs were imposed.

Spies gathering information while living in an adversary’s country is another type of behaviour in yellow-card territory that occurs frequently. Many countries do this and when spies are caught, there is a price to pay – deportation, prison and in some cases execution.

However, these types of behaviour are quite common, and even expected, among nations and can roughly be classified into the yellow card category.

Thus, even though there are tacit understandings between countries about the “rules” of fair play, all countries push the boundaries into yellow card-territory to get an advantage.

Xi Jinping. File photo: Kremlin.

However, it is when countries go beyond certain limits into red-card territory that clear violations of the rules of fair play occur. In football, this would be equivalent to kicking another player or spitting on them.

Unfortunately, recently, China has decided to throw away the rule book and commit repeated red card offences completely ignoring all sense of fair play. Witness its imposition of an 80% tariff on Australian barley, essentially crippling the industry.

To compare, last year the American tariffs on China and various other countries never exceeded 25%, and that was considered excessive. China has also advised its citizens not to visit Australia because of an apparent rise in discrimination against Asians. These measures against Australia coincide with Canberra’s rightful call for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, leaving little doubt that the 80% tariff is retaliatory.

Now just imagine the uproar if the Australian government were to try to tell its citizens what countries they should and shouldn’t visit for strictly retaliatory reasons.

Canada has also been on the receiving end of China’s red-card behaviour. Last year, China banned canola imports from Canada in a thinly disguised move to punish the country for detaining Meng Wanzhou, a Huawei executive wanted on criminal charges in the United States.

China resumed shipments of canola from Canada only after its own soybean stocks sunk to a low point because the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the global supply. In other words, China is even willing to damage its own economy in order to exact revenge on another country.

Meng Wanzhou. File

Worse, China imprisoned two Canadians without charges for the past year and half. Then last week the two were suddenly charged with spying. In essence, the two are diplomatic hostages being held in revenge for Wanzhou’s detention, even though Canada is simply following both its own laws and internationally sanctioned rules of behaviour.

Now just imagine any Western country imprisoning citizens of another country without charges over a diplomatic row. Most countries understand that such an action warrants a red card and they simply don’t do it.

On the subject of Huawei, China has revealed its displeasure and threatened sanctions on countries that ban gear from Huawei’s 5G mobile network. Yet, American companies such as Google and Facebook have long been prevented from operating in China without the US threatening any punishment. Again, notions of fair play and red cards raise their heads.

In fact, these are just a few examples. Other red-card offences committed by China include state-sanctioned kidnappings outside its borders, mass incarcerations of its own people and building military outposts in disputed waters.

To be completely fair, it’s true that all countries engage in subterfuge, playing dirty in covert ways; and opponents of my argument here may well point to what they perceive as red-card transgressions by other countries.

However, it is the number of instances and the brazen nature of China’s recent behaviour that stand out. It seems like it has unilaterally thrown away the playbook. Red cards are ignored while it imposes its will with impunity backed by its economic power.

Photo: Ian Burt, via Flickr.

Presently, the closest thing we have to a referee is the world’s biggest superpower; however, it has stated loudly that it is looking after only its own interests. Thus, seemingly the only plausible way forward is for smaller countries, such as Australia, Canada and EU nations, to band together in a team effort to fight back.

China’s multiple deliberate handballs are upsetting the world order and sense of fair play. It is time to issue a red card that has teeth.

Paul Stapleton

Paul Stapleton is a long-time resident of several countries in Asia, where he has been teaching and researching at various universities. He writes about environmental, social and educational issues. In his op-eds, Paul's goal is to shed some light on issues of interest as well as generate a bit of heat. Paul’s website is at Academic Proofreading Plus.