12 February 2020
Australian diplomats are currently attempting a delicate task that could save the country billions of dollars – they are trying to persuade China to open a small gap in its great internet firewall.
As a result of the Wuhan coronavirus, about 100,000 fee-paying Chinese students may not make it to Australia for the start of the academic year. This could cost Australia up to A$8 billion. Universities want to offer courses online to the stranded students, potentially until Australia’s travel ban ends, but this will require China to agree to lift some of its internet restrictions.
The coronavirus is a devastating tragedy for China, where almost all of the 44,803 identified cases of the virus have occurred. But the fallout is global. Australia, which is more dependent on trade with China than any other advanced nation, will be heavily affected. Containing the damage is testing Australia’s diplomatic reach, which in recent years has been severely curtailed.
The epidemic has displayed some of the terrible consequences of China’s secrecy and repressiveness. And it has shown how difficult it can be for the international community to interpret events there.
Initially, local authorities tried to conceal the outbreak. China then imposed lockdowns in Hubei province and publicly released information about the virus, drawing praise from the World Health Organization. But Beijing has since been criticised for refusing offers of help from foreign experts. And speculation persists about the accuracy of the data it releases.
Last week, Li Wenliang, the 34-year-old doctor who was reprimanded by police for posting a warning about the virus on social media, died after becoming infected. This has been followed by an unusual public outpouring of anger. It is still unclear whether this represents a serious challenge to the Chinese Communist Party’s standing.
China’s intentions can be murky and easy to misread. Australia’s ability to respond to a crisis such as this depends on the depth of its expertise, the strength of its relationship with Beijing, and the extent of its reach within China. These will determine whether Australia can, for instance, quickly secure evacuation flights from Wuhan or ensure Chinese students keep up with their first semester courses at Australian universities.
Australia has been expanding its presence throughout China in recent years, but it does not have a consulate in Wuhan. And, overall, its diplomatic capacity is in severe decline. As Melissa Conley Tyler notes in AFA7: China Dependence, Australia’s diplomacy and aid budget dropped from A$8.3 billion in 2013–14, adjusted for inflation, to A$6.7 billion in 2019–20. Australia has 116 diplomatic missions abroad, which is below both the OECD average of 132 and the G20 average of 194. Writing before the coronavirus outbreak, Conley Tyler warns that “Australia has run down its diplomatic capacity to the point that it is under-resourced to confront current foreign policy challenges”.
Expanding Australia’s diplomatic reach will not be cheap. And the returns are not always easy to demonstrate. Australia could not have foreseen the Wuhan outbreak, but it should come as no surprise that a situation has arisen requiring diplomatic officials to scramble to secure the safety of Australian citizens and trade interests.
Australia’s trade now accounts for 43 per cent of its economy, up from 27 per cent in 1960. This has steadily risen for decades and helps to explain the country’s twenty-eight consecutive years of growth.
Much of Australia’s good fortune is generated abroad. It needs to maintain a presence in the places on which its future depends – to seek opportunities, and to respond when things go wrong.