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11 March 2020

With Jonathan Pearlman

Coronavirus – a tale of four nations

The coronavirus has now been detected on all continents except Antarctica, and is expected to spread to all countries (it has already reached more than 100). It will have a lasting impact on international affairs, much as the global financial crisis did. The 2008 financial crisis undermined confidence in democracy and capitalism, prompted the first G20 leaders’ summit, and advanced the international stature of China, whose economy proved crucial to global recovery.

So far, the outbreak is affecting different countries in different ways, revealing much about their strengths and weaknesses. Here is an account of how the coronavirus is playing out in China, the United States, South Korea and Australia.


China was slow to respond to the outbreak because local authorities had tried to cover it up. Eventually, Beijing took control and was able to impose strict quarantine measures, including a lockdown that restricted the movements of more than 50 million people. In Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, it famously built an emergency hospital in ten days.

The extent of the outbreak remains unclear. China initially allowed relatively free coverage of the crisis, but this resulted in fierce criticism of the government. The Communist Party has since reimposed strict censorship. It has destroyed early records and samples of the virus and silenced – and detained – critics of the government’s response.

China wants to present a narrative in which its tight controls allowed it to efficiently respond to the outbreak, part of a broader attempt to demonstrate the benefits of its centralised, authoritarian government. Late last month, China’s publicity department released a book, A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combatting Covid-19 in 2020, which praises Xi Jinping’s “outstanding leadership” in handling the crisis. The book will be translated into English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic.

United States

So far, the spread of the virus in the United States has been limited. Health authorities have been increasingly proactive. Schools in affected areas have closed, universities are transitioning to online teaching, and workplaces across the west coast have told staff to stay home.

But the virus has exposed the dangers of Donald Trump’s willingness to spread false information and to downplay or ignore the views of scientists and experts. Trump dismissed the risks of the virus. Just as the outbreak was spreading, he said it was “very much under control”. And just as doctors warned of a shortage of medical supplies, including coronavirus test kits, Trump claimed that “anybody that needs a test gets a test”.

In recent years, Trump has proposed cutting funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the government’s public health institute. He proposed a 19 per cent cut this year that would have withdrawn US$100 million for managing diseases transmitted by animals to humans. Congress has blocked most of his proposed cuts, but in 2018 he successfully shut down the National Security Council’s global health security unit, which was set up by Barack Obama following the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

A poll of registered voters this week found that 56 per cent thought Joe Biden, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, would do a better job of handling a crisis than Trump. The election is in November.

South Korea

South Korea has suffered one of the largest outbreaks of the coronavirus. President Moon Jae-in is facing heavy criticism over his failure to quickly bar entry to travellers arriving from China. He appeared to be reluctant to adopt measures that would damage the economy. China buys about 25 per cent of South Korean exports and supplies 21 per cent of imports.

But South Korea has one of the world’s best health systems and appears to be better equipped to respond than other countries experiencing mass outbreaks. By the end of last week, it had tested more than 140,000 people and set up McDonalds-style drive-through clinics that can test people within ten minutes. This has helped to provide a better picture of the virus and how it spreads. The fatality rate in South Korea is less than 1 per cent, compared with 4 per cent in China and 5 per cent in Italy. This is probably because South Korea has detected a higher proportion of people who are infected but display few or no symptoms.

The outbreak is affirming the value of South Korea’s investment in public health, but may prove damaging to Moon’s Democratic Party at midterm elections next month.


Australia is more reliant on trade with China than any other developed nation and its economy is expected to be heavily affected by the outbreak. International education and tourism are Australia’s fourth and fifth largest exports, respectively; China is its largest source of foreign students and international visitors.

For years, the Coalition criticised Kevin Rudd’s stimulus package during the global financial crisis. But Australia emerged from that crisis as the only major economy to avoid a recession. Its trade with China grew, and it advanced to become the world’s twelfth-largest economy (it is now the thirteenth).

Most economists believe a large-scale stimulus program is now needed to assist affected businesses and restore economic confidence. Scott Morrison this week flagged his preference for a temporary, limited scheme, criticising Rudd’s package as “pear-shaped”. Morrison’s success in steering Australia through the current crisis will depend on his ability to adopt policies shaped by evidence rather than ideology or partisanship.


Who will be the 21st century’s rule maker?

“China is unlikely ever to become the dominant power in the region, despite its size. Rather, it is more likely to be first among great-power equals … Even if the US remains an Asia-Pacific power, it will be relatively diminished, simply because it won’t be able to match the growth rates of the others.” Sam RoggeveenThe Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

When it comes to the Pacific the feeling is mutual – how do Australian diplomats and their academic counterparts see each other?

“I’ll put it bluntly. Many Australian diplomats in the Pacific believe their counterparts in academia are naïve, ideologically rigid, and utterly indifferent to Australia’s national interest.” Stephen DziedzicGriffith Asia Insights

Coronavirus – China’s trade economy slowly coming back to life, but US$190 billion export hit expected

“While more factories in China have reopened this week, only 45 per cent of small businesses had reopened as of Monday, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology ... Daily container traffic at US ports from China, meanwhile, fell from 32,550 on 4 February to just 2,784 on 26 February.” Finbarr BerminghamSouth China Morning Post


Sea mines are cheap and low-tech, but they could stop world trade in its tracks

“More than 90 per cent of global trade occurs by sea. This makes strategic maritime chokepoints, such as the Strait of Hormuz and Bab el Mandeb in the Middle East, some of the most strategically important patches of water on earth. Close one or two of those down for any length of time, and we’ve got a serious problem.” Elizabeth White, The Strategist (ASPI)

A chance for peace or a rush to the exit?

“For Australia, a critical question would be whether a prisoner release would see the freeing of the rogue soldier Hekmatullah, who killed three Australian soldiers … If it happens, the blame should be directed at Washington rather than Kabul … Withdrawal agreements dressed up as peace agreements have a bad history of being dishonoured.” William Maley, Australian Outlook

Free from Australian Foreign Affairs

The Education of an Idealist, book review by Helen Clark

“Samantha Power’s time in President Obama’s administration, first in the National Security Council and then as her country’s representative at the United Nations in New York, overlapped almost entirely with the years I spent as administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, when I was particularly focused on international events. The topics covered in her memoir were highly familiar to me, but I found its insider’s perspectives both insightful and refreshingly frank. I couldn’t put this book down.” Helen Clark, HERE



We should take every possible measure we can think of.

Moon Jae-in, President (South Korea)

We understand that these [quarantine] measures will impose sacrifices.

Giuseppe Conte, Prime Minister (Italy)

We must not let America add a new virus … by spreading tremendous fear.

Hassan Rouhani, President (Iran)

Sources: The Straits Times, BBC News, Reuters

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