20 May 2020
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization resolved to hold an inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic. Australia led the initial call for an inquiry, and the strong support for it from the WHO’s decision-making body should have been a victory for Australian diplomacy. Instead, the resolution was ultimately drafted by the European Union, which, unlike Australia, avoided blowback from Beijing.
Unfortunately, Canberra’s push for an inquiry was completely mishandled. The problem began with Marise Payne’s announcement of the inquiry proposal in an interview. She appeared to blame China for the outbreak and she also said the inquiry should not involve the WHO. Scott Morrison quickly dropped this idea and instead suggested that the WHO’s investigating powers be expanded.
It then emerged that Australia had failed to shore up support for the inquiry. After Payne’s announcement, Morrison discussed the proposal with Donald Trump and several European leaders, who showed lukewarm support because they were busy handling domestic outbreaks. And it seems that Canberra made no attempt to discuss the proposal with Beijing, despite insisting that China cooperate.
All of this infuriated China, which overreacted with typical boorishness and began punishing Australia by curbing trade on meat and barley. Morrison and Payne later announced they wanted an impartial review and were not trying to blame China, but their assurances did not placate Beijing.
Australia could have avoided a backlash by doing from the outset what it ended up doing anyway: working to persuade states to support an inquiry and presenting it as a genuine attempt to understand the pandemic rather than find a culprit. This approach, eventually undertaken by the European Union, Australia and others, led to overwhelming international support for the proposal, which added to the pressure on China to cooperate. On Monday, Xi Jinping backed a review, saying it should be held after the pandemic ends.
This outcome showed the usefulness of collective international bodies such as the WHO. While Morrison has criticised the WHO, he has rightly called for “constructive” reform and has rejected Trump’s move to defund it. Australia currently has a representative on the WHO’s thirty-four-member governing board and, as a significant donor, is well-placed to press for reforms.
The inquiry saga should be an important lesson for Australia as it deals with an increasingly powerful China. Australia cannot confront China alone. And it can no longer rely on the United States to defend its interests, particularly as Trump focuses on “America first” and shows little interest in strengthening ties with allies or cooperating with multilateral organisations such as the WHO.
Australia will frequently need to work with other partners to collectively offset Beijing’s influence. Australia may often find itself leading this effort – it is the Indo Pacific’s fifth-wealthiest country behind China, Japan, India and South Korea, and the region’s fifth-largest defence spender. But if and when it chooses to take the diplomatic lead, it must be clear and consistent and consult widely. It should not repeat the White House’s rhetoric or presume that China will act in bad faith. Instead, it should encourage China to cooperate – even if it expects an unhelpful response, it should let Chinese intransigence speak for itself.