15 April 2020
For flag-wavers on each side of the United States–China divide, the COVID-19 pandemic is providing plenty of ammunition. Washington has focused on the Chinese cover-up during the early days of the outbreak. “I wish China would have told us how bad the situation was”, Donald Trump said late last month. Beijing, meanwhile, has targeted Washington’s incompetence in responding to the virus. “The US side has completely wasted the precious time China has won for the world”, said Geng Shuang, a foreign ministry spokesperson.
Sadly, both criticisms are true. The pandemic is highlighting serious defects in the world’s two most powerful nations. It has shown that the Chinese Communist Party’s rule by misinformation, censorship and repression affects all of us, not just its main target, Chinese nationals. And it has revealed the full cost of Washington’s paralysis and partisanship, which have left the nation in the hands of a reckless, inept administration that is weakening its global leadership.
For Australia, the usual dilemma – to choose between its ties with China or the United States, to prioritise trade or security – no longer applies. Both choices must be treated with caution.
As China has risen, it has shown increased openness towards the international community. It encourages trade, its citizens travel widely and study overseas, and it actively participates in multilateral organisations. But it can also suddenly snap back towards secrecy and opacity. Early last year, for instance, when Chinese imports of Australian coal slowed, no explanations or official announcements of a policy change were made. Instead, mining companies and the Australian government were left to guess at whether Beijing was punishing Canberra or trying to protect its domestic coal industry.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown that the consequences of China’s lack of transparency are not merely economic. The early cover-up in Wuhan worsened the outbreak in China and beyond. Still today, there is little reason to believe China’s official death toll of 3345, which is lower than that of Belgium, which has 12 million residents (China has 1.4 billion). In Wuhan, guards strictly patrol cemeteries and have been preventing reporters from entering. This highlights a basic difficulty in dealing with China: official information, no matter how significant or trivial, cannot be trusted. This issue is now more problematic than ever, as reliable data becomes crucial to international efforts to respond to the crisis.
But the United States, too, is demonstrating serious faults. Trump’s self-serving, hyperbolic presidency is not a joke. It has imperilled Mexican migrants, the uninsured and electoral democracy. Now, his dismissal of the pandemic’s seriousness has cost countless lives. As president, he has weakened the country’s health system, undermined the public service, and elevated sycophants over experts, all of which have worsened the consequences of the outbreak and will make recovery more difficult. This crisis is likely to leave the United States weaker and with an increased focus on domestic affairs. As tensions with China grow, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, countries will have less confidence in the United States and its decision-making.
For years, Australian leaders have been unwilling to openly question American presidents. This attitude has continued during the Trump presidency, as evidenced by Scott Morrison’s refusal to denounce Trump’s ill-considered deployment of trade tariffs. But the dangers of Trump’s myopia are on tragic display, as are the risks of blindly following him.
As Australia considers its post-pandemic future, it must take into account the serious flaws that the pandemic has exposed in both its closest trading partner and its closest security ally. Hopefully, China and the United States will learn from their tragic errors. The United States, as an open democracy, should in theory be better placed to self-correct than China, a state built around the preservation of the rule of the Communist Party. This remains true, despite Trump’s assault on the institutions on which the US quest for “a more perfect union” is based. Still, he may get four more years in November.