AFA Monthly logo

20 May 2020

With Jonathan Pearlman

COVID-19: Canberra’s China blunder

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. 



China’s aggressive approach to coronavirus criticism “not working”

“One Chinese government adviser, who asked not to be named, said the pandemic had offered China opportunities to improve international relations but the result was ‘obviously opposite’. Instead of maintaining stable foreign relations, Chinese diplomacy had been largely overwhelmed by the need to serve domestic propaganda, the person said.” Wendy WuSouth China Morning Post

The politics of aid in a crisis

“Those who have traditionally been in the driver’s seat of global public goods provision, such as the United States and the European Union, no longer appear willing or able to take the lead ... China and Russia are determined not to let this crisis go to waste. It is a unique opportunity to paint themselves as the white knights, even when their aid turns out to be faulty, and when it comes with an invoice attached.” Gorana GrgicPolicy Forum

China used anti-dumping rules against us because what goes around comes around

“However poorly justified, there are precedents for what China has done, many of them from Australia ... It remains a prolific user of the system compared to other countries, with an outsized number of measures imposed against imports from one country, China, and imports of one product, steel.” Simon Lacey, The Conversation


Countering China’s influence operations – lessons from Australia

“The Australian government is only in the beginning stages of formulating a comprehensive and effective counter-strategy, and it is helpfully sharing its lessons and current approach to countering malign influence with other democracies.” Amy Searight, CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies)

Small states show the world how to survive multipolarity

“Small states such as New Zealand lack the decisive military power or economic leverage needed to pursue their interests unilaterally … [Small states] may need to join together to lead. New Zealand and Singapore, for example, are already working together to create a plurilateral agreement to maintain open trade and commerce during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Jason Young, East Asia Forum

Free from Australian Foreign Affairs

Author response to correspondence on “Red Detachment”

“My essay addresses the practical and ethical challenges of engaging with Chinese culture, as well as the rewards of doing so. It in no way sidesteps the reality of China’s one-party dictatorship. It also acknowledges the work Hamilton has done in bringing Beijing’s operations in Australia to public attention ... But I maintain that his more extreme claims – that Beijing wants to turn Australia into a tribute state, for instance – are overblown; just like, apparently, his antipathy to criticism.” Linda Jaivin, HERE


Read past editions of AFA Monthly

Sign up to AFA Monthly to get each new edition in your inbox