29 April 2020
COVID-19: Buying into US–China tension
In the United States, the presidential race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is quickly turning into a contest over who is toughest on China. The Trump team has launched a #BeijingBiden campaign, with a dedicated website – Beijingbiden.com – attacking Biden for a “ruinous” forty-year quest to boost trade with China. In response, Biden’s team says Trump has pandered to China, that he has promised to be tough but “never followed through on his bluster”.
This rhetoric is markedly different to that used in the 2016 presidential race, when both Trump and Hillary Clinton presented China as an economic threat but not an all-out rival to American security, values and power. In her 2014 pre-campaign book, Hard Choices, Clinton writes that the US–China relationship doesn’t fit “neatly into categories like friend or rival”. But, as the United States reels from COVID-19, Trump and Biden are both reaching for the simpler view – that China must be confronted, and that engagement and cooperation are tantamount to submission. As the campaign continues, the candidates risk pushing each other into increasingly belligerent commitments.
For Australia, this is a worrying development. Canberra wants a strong America that exercises global leadership and pushes back against Chinese actions that undermine stability in Asia, such as assertions of sovereignty in the South China Sea. But Canberra does not want Washington to adopt positions that themselves cause instability or that unnecessarily impede cooperation and growth.
A presidential campaign dominated by anti-China rhetoric is likely to divide Australia and the United States at a time when Beijing is keen to exploit disunity in the West. But Canberra should not blindly follow anti-China policies embraced by Washington.
Unfortunately, Scott Morrison and foreign minister Marise Payne appeared to do so last week with their call for an inquiry into the outbreak of COVID-19. Their appeal was badly timed and poorly handled.
It appeared to be prompted by Trump’s decision, announced days earlier, to stop funding the World Health Organization, which, he said, had helped China to cover up the seriousness of the virus. Morrison, unlike his British and New Zealand counterparts, refused to criticise the decision.
Instead of presenting the inquiry as a fact-finding investigation into the origins of the virus, and the subsequent responses by the WHO, China and others, the government framed it as an inquiry aimed at confirming the culpability of China. Payne announced the push for it and then – in the same interview – said the government intended to review the Australia–China relationship.
The other problem with the timing of the announcement was that countries such as France and Britain are currently in the grip of serious outbreaks and have made it clear that they are too preoccupied to focus on reform of the WHO. This left Australia appearing to be the lone instigator.
In response, Chinese Ambassador Cheng Jingye lashed out this week. In an interview with The Australian Financial Review’s Andrew Tillett, Cheng accused Australia of “teaming up with those forces in Washington … to launch a kind of political campaign against China”. He warned that Canberra’s push for an inquiry could prompt Chinese tourists and students to stay away from Australia and Chinese consumers to boycott Australian products.
Cheng’s response was excessive and his threats were extreme, but it is understandable that some in Beijing might assume Canberra is acting at Washington’s behest. Canberra does not need to pander to Chinese paranoia and oversensitivities, but it should also aim to avoid, rather than feed, such misperceptions.
Morrison and Payne are right to try to rally collective action on issues such as public health, especially as the current US president is uninterested in assuming global leadership. But to be effective, Canberra needs to be seen to be an honest player, and to start distancing itself from the strident rhetoric that is set to erupt from Washington in the lead-up to the 3 November election and beyond.