09/08/2016 2:05 PM AEST | Updated 09/08/2016 2:53 PM AEST

China Wants To Make A Big Splash Without Jumping In The Deep End

It's an Olympic war of words, but it's not everything.

Marcos Brindicci / Reuters
The controversy was started when Australian swimmer Mack Horton referred China's Sun Yang a 'drug cheat.'

A war of words has erupted between China's state-run media and Australia, with the Global Times calling Olympic gold medal swimmer Mack Horton "immoral" and Australia a "former offshore prison".

But a geopolitical expert says China's belligerent editorials should be taken with a grain of salt, because the country is far more focused on measured, strategic global investments than on "confrontational" posturing.

The controversy -- which also included Chinese state run news agency Xinhua news -- erupted after Horton, fresh after winning a gold medal in the 400m freestyle, called Chinese swimmer Sun Yang a drug cheat.

"We don't know if it is Horton who is silly or it's the Australian media that is evil, or perhaps Australia just has a different moral standard," The Global Times said in an editorial.

"In many serious essays written by Westerners, Australia is mentioned as a country at the fringes of civilisation.

"In some cases, they refer to the country's early history as Britain's offshore prison. This suggests that no one should be surprised at uncivilised acts emanating from the country."

In a follow-up editorial the Global Times again attacked Australia's "smug" swimmer, and Swimming Australia, for backing Horton's comments about Yang.

Slamming Horton's remarks as "derisive and slanderous," the Times wrote that: "The whole level of Australia's awareness of sports ethics and glory is as low as that of a young and brash kid".

On Monday Horton explained away an earlier incident where he ignored Yang splashing water in his face by saying: "(Yang) splashed me to say hello, and I didn't respond because I don't have time for drug cheats".

Horton has since been trolled on social media after Chinese web-users unleashed their digital fury.


Sydney University Professor of Politics and Director of the Sydney Democracy Network, Professor John Keane, said he would not read too much into the Global Times' strong rhetoric.

While the tabloid-style paper is associated with China's ruling Communist party, it is just one mouth in a vast political body that is largely focused on trade, investment and regional relationships.

"When speaking about China, the rule has to be you have to learn to stuff your head with contradictions and look closely at what China is doing, because it is very contradictory," he said.

"China, rather than it being a confrontational superpower in the making.... is in fact much more sophisticated. Military power is only one force in its arsenal," Keane said.

He pointed to China's cross integration with global economies, its engagement with the World Trade Organisation and infrastructure projects with Pakistan, as well as its Belt and Silk Road Initiative, as evidence that it is focused more strategically.

He said the driving force for China at the moment is investment.

"That serves as a break on reckless geopolitical maneuvers," he said.

Still, the Olympic incident isn't the first time Chinese-state-owned media has taken aim at Australia, and nor is Australia the first country in recent history to hurt China's feelings.

But Australia has become a particular media target because of it's association with The U.S. and Japan and their stance on the South China Sea.

Following the Hague ruling that China had no legal basis to claim its vague nine-dot line border on the South China Sea, the Global Times wrote that "Australia's power means nothing compared to the security of China."

Referring to Australia as a "paper cat" at best, the Times wrote the south pacific nation had "unexpectedly made itself a pioneer of hurting China's interest with a fiercer attitude than countries directly involved in the South China Sea dispute."

"But this paper cat won't last."