26 August 2020
In the past week, senior Chinese and Japanese diplomats have brushed aside travel constraints in an effort to woo key allies, often with so-called “vaccine diplomacy”, or offers of aid to deal with the pandemic and its aftermath.
Japanese foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi has visited several countries across the Asia-Pacific, and defence minister Tarō Kōno will meet his US counterpart, Mark Esper, at the end of the week. On Saturday, Chinese and South Korean senior officials paved the way for President Xi Jinping to visit South Korea in the near future.
Australia embarked on its own vaccine diplomacy last week when Scott Morrison revealed an agreement to locally produce a vaccine being developed by Oxford University and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. Significantly, he also committed to ensuring Pacific countries and Indonesia obtain early access to the vaccine via the development aid program, should the trial be successful.
Within days of Morrison’s announcement, Papua New Guinea took steps to halt an unauthorised vaccine trial on Papuan employees at a Chinese-owned mine in Madang province. Meanwhile Indonesia announced it had signed a deal to obtain a potential vaccine from China.
The new vaccine diplomacy battles may complicate Australia’s plans to pursue greater cooperation across the region to balance Beijing’s clout. Australia is right to help its neighbours with long-term planning to control the pandemic. But it should keep its focus on strengthening its alliances with countries such as Indonesia, not its competition with China.
Australia needs the WTO
Unfortunately for Australia, the World Trade Organization has been losing stature in recent years, as trade growth has declined and many countries have been pushed by the Trump administration towards more bilateral and opportunistic trade expansion options.
Last week, the organisation’s challenges were highlighted by the announcement that its director-general, Roberto Azevêdo, is taking up a newly created position at PepsiCo. Azevêdo has headed the WTO – ostensibly one of the world’s highest-profile multilateral institutions – for almost five years. But he resigned in May, almost a year earlier than his term was due to end.
The WTO now seems set to get its first female and first African director-general, in an acknowledgement that more diverse global representation is needed. However, the change of leadership might slow down the WTO’s ability to deal with some of the current challenges. Kenya’s former trade minister Amina Mohamed and Nigeria’s former finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala are said to be the frontrunners to replace Azevêdo, out of a pool of eight candidates.
Countries that support the WTO, like Australia, need to get a new director-general in place quickly to try to restore the organisation’s standing. The WTO rules and appeal processes are very important to Australia, as a middle-sized nation, especially in view of current tensions in Australia–China relations. For instance, Australia has said it will appeal any dumping penalties China imposes on Australian barley and wine exports before the WTO.
WTO members are drifting towards more unilateral trade deals and forming coalitions of the willing on issues such as digital trade. Any delay in appointing a new leader will only reinforce this trend.
Voting is underway to elect a president and thirty-nine House of Representative members in Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea. Results are expected in mid-September.
The newly elected members will be responsible for negotiating the terms of Bougainville’s separation from Papua New Guinea, after the vast majority of about 200,000 voters chose independence in a referendum last year.
The incumbent president, John Momis, cannot stand for re-election, due to a two-term limit. The battle to replace him, in which twenty-five candidates are competing, could be a destabilising one, as the unsuccessful candidates will not become members of the legislature and the experienced Momis may be sidelined from the negotiations.
Some 20,000 people died in Bougainville’s struggle for independence in the 1990s. While Papua New Guinea has now acknowledged the overwhelming support for independence, the process and time frame must still be negotiated.
Australia has much at stake in the creation of this new state. Many countries in the region are already fragile and Australia is typically called upon to help resolve civil or economic turmoil.
But Australia’s role in facilitating some form of independence must be undertaken with sensitivity. In a recent statement, Morrison noted that Australia supports the post-referendum process and will encourage “the ongoing collaboration of Papua New Guinea and Autonomous Bougainville Government”.