For more than a decade, Australia faced a seemingly impossible choice: whether to strengthen relations with its closest allies, the United States, or with its biggest trading partners, China.
But the Covid-19 pandemic – which has highlighted the dangers posed by Donald Trump’s nativism and Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism – forced Australia to face a new choice: don’t vote.
Trump is not interested in leading the world out of this crisis. Unlike its predecessor, he did not try to exert global influence by asserting control over international institutions; instead, convinced that such bodies were damaging US authority, he tried to destroy them.
This approach was exhibited last week, when he was threatened to stop funding the World Health Organization within 30 days if you don’t approve an unspecified reform.
But this pandemic also shows the threat to the global order posed by China Xi, another major world power.
The concealment of the initial outbreak in Wuhan and the unreliable information released by Beijing has shown that not only the Chinese population – especially ethnic minorities – will suffer from an increasingly repressive and repressive secret government.
This makes Australia in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory. It has committed troops to each of the main US conflicts since the second world war to prove its value as a security ally, but Washington added to the instability that the alliance was designed to prevent.
Meanwhile, the Australian economy has become one of the most dependent on China in developed countries. At present, relying on these two great powers as a source of security and prosperity seems increasingly risky. Australia will often need to find new partners, or act on their own.
Unfortunately, the recent response by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Secretary of State Marise Payne to this difficulty – their push to investigate the origins of Covid-19 – is a mishap of mismanagement.
It not only raises concerns about whether Canberra can competently handle its emerging diplomatic challenges, but – because Australia is now facing a trade backlash from China – it also shows the potential cost of failure.
The call for an inquiry was announced by Payne last month in an interview on ABC’s Insiders where he appeared to blame China and the World Health Organization – a position that seemed to echo increasingly strident rhetoric at the White House. But it quickly emerged that Canberra had not yet tried to gather support for the proposal.
This left Australia as the only voice on the international stage – a situation which did not need to expose it to Beijing’s anger.
Australia, in the past three years, has prided itself on being the first country in the world to introduce a comprehensive law aimed at curbing Chinese foreign interference and is the first country to completely bar Huawei from participating in its 5G network. But this makes it difficult for Canberra to try to persuade China that it is not the target of the investigation, and it is more likely that Beijing will react with poison.
To gather support for the investigation, Morrison called Trump, who showed support, and European leaders, who were reluctant to continue while they were in the grip of the domestic Covid-19 outbreak. Morrison and Payne made no clear efforts to discuss the questions raised with Beijing, but insisted that China must cooperate.
Chinese officials and state media react angrily, and with typical aggression. The Chinese ambassador to Australia warned that Chinese consumers could boycott Australian wine and beef – and, a few weeks later, China cut imports from Australia’s four abattoirs. Since then an 80% tariff has been applied on Australian wheat, and has reportedly moved to limit Australian coal imports.
China does not link these steps with investigations. It said the beef ban was due to health and safety issues, coal restrictions were to support domestic suppliers, and barley tariffs followed an investigation launched in November 2018 about claims that Australia deliberately sold barley cheaply. As is so often the case with China, the exact reasons for his decision are still unclear.
Eventually, Australia canceled proposals for investigations that would be conducted outside of WHO. Instead, he did what was supposed to be done so far – work with like-minded countries to win broad support for investigations.
This supports the EU resolution for an independent investigation to be carried out by the WHO oversight committee, which is chaired by Dr Felicity Harvey, a visiting professor at Imperial College London. Unlike Australia, the EU is not subject to Chinese levies.
China eventually co-sponsored the proposal, which was endorsed unanimously by the governing body of 194 WHO members. In particular, Xi, unlike Trump, accepts invitations to appear before the body.
Morrison and the cabinet are right to push for an investigation. Of course, the world needs to understand this pandemic. And countries like Australia – which has the 13th largest economy in the world – must be willing to lead the drive for international action.
However, in this new environment of mistrust and global turmoil, Australia needs to change the way it operates. It will increasingly be necessary to act without relying on US support, especially as some of Trump’s attitudes – especially his tendency towards protectionism – are gaining attention in Washington.
This will need to take a more active role in agencies such as WHO, especially as the US returns it to these institutions and China tries to take over leadership. But Australia must give China the opportunity to act in good faith, rather than giving Beijing justification for war. And it is necessary to consult with other partners, who might be aware of the steps that are driving China.
This is not outside the leaders or diplomats of Australia. But that would require the government to avoid taking unnecessary positions to trigger US-Chinese tensions or damage relations with Beijing.
The messages also do not have to be designed to fit the domestic audience, or dropped without warning in the Sunday morning interview.
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