Main Image Credit Senator The Hon Marise Payne, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Australia. Courtesy of The Official CTBTO Photostream/Wikimedia Commons.
The Australian-led initiative to establish an international inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic was a notable diplomatic achievement, and perhaps a harbinger of things to come.
Australia’s bold call for an independent investigation into the coronavirus pandemic has ended with China backing down – not that it admits it – and the regime’s humiliation at the World Health Assembly. Other surprising news in this context has been the preparedness of the EU – which recently capitulated to Chinese pressure to tone down criticism of its response to the pandemic – to stick its neck out by backing Australia against China.
A History of Acquiescence
The story of the West’s preparedness in recent decades to accept Chinese intimidation is a long one. Douglas Murray recently revealed a further episode of this in the details of what happened after China put relations with the UK in deep freeze after David Cameron met the Dalai Lama in 2012. Once the regime had received an apology from London and after a suitable interval, a meeting between the two sides’ officials took place. But before it could get underway, the Chinese asked the UK government to stand and read their apology out loud, which they duly did.
Though this public apology was astonishing, all Western countries, not least Australia, have been guilty of permissive behaviour towards China. This has been particularly so among Australia’s corporate leaders and the universities. The University of Queensland last year took the extraordinary step of appointing China’s Consul-General in Brisbane as an adjunct professor. The diplomat-professor soon after, on the Chinese consulate website, congratulated the ‘patriotic behaviour’ of pro-regime Chinese nationals who had assaulted Hong-Kong democracy ‘splittists’ at the university.
In neighbouring New Zealand, politicians have gone to similar epic efforts to please the Chinese regime, including about issues China would prefer were not publicised. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern donned a hijab to lead her nation in mourning after last year’s Christchurch mosque attacks. But her compassion for Muslims did not extend to criticising China’s imprisonment and ‘re-education’ of hundreds of thousands of its Muslim citizens when she visited China two weeks later. Former New Zealand trade minister and opposition shadow trade spokesman Todd McClay has described the camps, echoing Chinese propaganda, as ‘vocational training centres’.
Australia and China
Australian governments have been as understandably enthusiastic as anyone about seizing the opportunities to export to China’s booming economy over recent decades, which included the finalisation by Tony Abbott’s government of a free trade agreement in 2014. But China’s growing power has made Australia all the more determined to maintain its alliance relationship with the US and to ensure America’s continued strategic presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia’s governments have generally remained clear-eyed about the security threat that China poses, for example, unlike the UK, excluding Huawei from its 5G rollout.
Still, there are not many recent examples of Australia risking the regime’s wrath and the consequent potential damage to its huge economic interests in China. Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne has had a low profile until recently. Yet last month she proposed an international investigation ‘to consider the genesis and spread of the pandemic, evaluate the different approaches to dealing with it, examine how information has been shared and assess the engagement of the World Health Organization [WHO] in the response’. She made it clear in interviews that she did not completely trust China. Stating the obvious, Australian ministers have referred to the virus as originating in Wuhan.
China’s response was predictably furious, both about the call for an investigation – the need for which China at the time appeared to reject – and about Australia’s contradiction of the regime’s absurd claim that the virus was brought to China by the US. The regime threatened trade retaliation, a threat which has now materialised in the shape of Chinese sanctions on Australian agricultural products.
After the death of a quarter of a million people and with a world on the verge of an economic depression, most outside China have unhesitatingly supported Australia’s call. But would anyone other than Australia have led the charge for an investigation?
Australia’s Labor opposition has usually been quick to attack initiatives by the ruling conservative Liberal–National coalition that attract criticism from Asian neighbours as the actions of America’s ’deputy sheriff’ in the Asia-Pacific. However, on this occasion, the government has received support from Labor, although it claims Canberra did not co-ordinate enough with other countries before announcing the initiative. In fact, Payne and Prime Minister Scott Morrison canvassed the idea with many international leaders including Australia’s Five Eyes partners, as well as France and Germany.
A Setback for Beijing
Thanks to Australia’s initiative, China has suffered a diplomatic setback. Having apparently ineptly calculated it could intimidate Australia into desisting in its call for an investigation, over 120 countries decided they agreed with Australia, and not China. Among these is the country closest to being a Chinese ally, Russia – and also Indonesia, the most important country in Southeast Asia, a region China has put huge effort into trying to influence.
The reasons for Chinese failure are obvious. Not to hold such an investigation would defy all common sense, including doing everything possible to prevent further pandemics. In addition, publics and governments around the world are understandably angry and insistent on answers about why the pandemic occurred.
The Chinese regime’s earlier hostility to an investigation ineptly undermined its own arguments: if it really believed the epidemic came from the US, would it not want an international investigation to confirm that? Rather than isolating Australia, it ended up isolating itself.
So China decided in the end to co-sponsor the resolution, claiming black is white in saying it was ‘a joke’ that the resolution calling for an ‘independent’ evaluation bore any resemblance to Australia’s original proposal. In view of all this, China can be expected to use every trick in the book to defer an investigation for as long as possible and to claim that the WHO, against all evidence, can be trusted with an ‘independent’ investigation.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has noted recently with nice touch of understatement that it cannot be ‘business as usual’ with China after the pandemic. Indeed, China’s authoritarian regime will from now on be even less trusted as a responsible and ethical member of the international community. And many countries whose economies have become dependent on China will make it a central issue of national security to diversify their trade away from a regime that tries to turn trade dependency among its international trading partners into political subservience.
Mark Higgie is a former diplomat and intelligence analyst. He was the international adviser to former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott from 2010 to 2014 and then served as Australia’s ambassador to NATO and the EU from 2014 to 2017. He is currently a columnist on international affairs and Senior Fellow at the Danube Institute, Budapest.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.