22 April 2020
On Sunday, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marise Payne abandoned her usual caution and lashed out at China, suggesting that Beijing may have deliberately blocked an Australian military aircraft from delivering aid to Vanuatu.
Payne was referring to an “absolutely regrettable” incident – as she put it – that occurred on 12 April. An A320 aircraft, being used by a Chinese contractor to deliver medical supplies to Vanuatu, was on the runway when an Australian plane carrying cyclone-relief supplies was due to land. The Australian pilot deemed it unsafe to land and turned around, delaying the delivery until the following day.
Pressed on whether China’s conduct was deliberate, Payne told ABC’s David Speers: “I don’t know … I wasn’t there”. Payne also refused to state whether she trusted China, saying the relationship was now being reviewed.
Payne is a notoriously guarded foreign minister. Her comments appear to reflect a hardened government-wide approach towards Beijing. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to overhauls of Australia’s economic, health and welfare policies – and it is clearly starting to reshape foreign policy.
Payne has called for a global inquiry into the origins of the pandemic, echoing concerns expressed by Washington and London about the World Health Organization’s possible complicity in Beijing’s cover-up of the outbreak.
Scott Morrison said he strongly backed the demand for an inquiry. Last Friday, in an interview with 3AW’s Neil Mitchell, he was asked about Australia’s ties with Beijing and reverted to the standard line – that Australia has a productive partnership with China but has also introduced security measures such as the foreign interference laws. Morrison then added: “But we have an eyes-wide-open relationship”.
This characterisation of the Australia–China relationship mirrors a comment made by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, during a visit to Sydney last August. Asked how worried Australians should be about China’s rise, Pompeo responded: “Very, very”. “The world, frankly, watched for too long”, he said. “I think everyone needs to have their eyes wide open.”
Payne is right to call for an inquiry into the outbreak of COVID-19 and the way it was handled by China, the WHO and others. China’s cover-up of the origins of the virus has had disastrous consequences and deserves to be scrutinised by the international community. But Payne should not follow the cues of the White House, which was also slow to respond to the outbreak and has its own motives for blaming China. The professed aim of the inquiry should not be to shame Beijing. China is unlikely to cooperate with an investigation, but will come under much greater pressure over its defiance if the inquiry is viewed as credible and impartial.
China’s secrecy surrounding COVID-19 is feeding and vindicating the White House’s increasingly hawkish rhetoric. Australia must formulate its own response. It has different stakes in the China relationship – its economy is more dependent on China and, unlike the current White House, it is committed to a world in which strong global bodies such as the WHO or the World Trade Organization coordinate international responses to public health crises and trade disputes.
Payne should be direct with China. But she should be sure to hit her target. A lack of transparency from China does not always mean it is concealing some calculated step in a masterplan. Last week, Airports Vanuatu told Reuters that the Chinese aid plane had left “2000 metres of runway available” and that the Australian plane was given clearance to land. Despite this, the Australian Defence Force insisted that a landing was unsafe. Graeme Smith, a specialist in China and the Pacific at the Australian National University, said he was “not at all convinced” that the Chinese company’s obstruction was deliberate. “I go for stuff up over conspiracy every time”, he said.