ALLAN PATIENCE. Dealing with China.

May 1, 2020

Scott Morrison and Marise Payne’s call for an international “independent” inquiry into the Coronavirus pandemic demonstrates the ham fistedness of the Morrison government’s approach to diplomacy.

This is not to defend the Chinese ambassador’s clumsy threats that Beijing may limit China’s trade with Australia if Canberra persists in calling for an inquiry. In fact, this latest spat between the two countries is yet another infantile game of one-upmanship that is damaging the Australia-China relationship right now.

Australia’s foreign policy is based on the assumption that the country is a middle power, recognised and respected as such in its region and globally. Its claims to middle power status are not based on the size of its military or the sophisticated structuring of its economy which are the initial orthodox criteria for claiming status in international politics.

Australia’s military is quite small and closely integrated (“interoperable” as the term has it) with the US military. Meanwhile, our economy is mainly a resources export economy (like many Third World economies), reliant on overseas markets that have an appetite for our mining exports and services sector (for example, education). What military heft we have is to a large extent determined by America (for example, we’re always heading off to war with the US), and our economy is always vulnerable to fluctuating global demand and the world’s increasingly unreliable supply chains.

However, at the international level we are not seen as being at the forefront of middle power diplomacy – unlike, for example, some smaller Scandinavian states. Despite occasional memberships of the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council, Australia fades into the background of countries like Norway when it comes to leadership on global agreements on climate change, human rights advocacy, and nuclear arms non-proliferation agreements. Indeed, on climate change, Australia is now viewed internationally as very much a “laggard state”.

In fact, Australia’s sole claim to middle power status is based on its alliance with the USA. We are in thrall to an enduring (albeit misguided) belief that Uncle Sam regards Australia as its “deputy sheriff” in the Asia Pacific, that we share similar values and interests, and that America will always come to our aid if we were to be threatened by belligerent neighbours. This is a very flimsy basis on which to claim middle power status. Moreover, as Malcolm Fraser wrote in 2014: ‘We need the United States for defence, but we only need defence because of the United States’.

In the past, this has resulted in displays of serious over-reach in the making of Australian foreign policy that actually undermine our claims to be a respected if not good global citizen. For example, when Kevin Rudd proposed an Asia-Pacific community loosely modelled on the European Union, the response from the region was a diplomatic slap in the face for Australia. While there was merit in the idea, Canberra simply assumed it would be taken up with enthusiasm by our Asia-Pacific neighbours because of Australia’s assumed middle power kudos in the region. It certainly wasn’t. The lack of subtlety in proposing the concept, the failure to quietly consult and engage sensitively and effectively with regional partners, well before announcing the initiative publicly and collectively (not unilaterally), doomed the idea right from the start.

It seems we never learn. Once more Australia’s middle power hubris has got the better of Morrison and Payne. What they have failed to see is that across much of the region, and even globally, Australia is seen, more often than not, to be an appendage of the United States. Instead of the proposal for an international inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic being viewed as sovereign Australia’s middle power initiative, it looks horribly like an act either initiated by Washington (“Let’s get compliant little old Australia to fly this particularly contentious kite!”), or in order to curry favour with the Trump administration. Or both of those odious possibilities.

Yes, an international inquiry is in order. But the way Morrison and Payne have gone about trying to get it going constitutes a stunningly impoverished understanding of what constitutes good diplomacy.

How should they have gone about the task?

First, they should have reached out to China, expressing condolences on behalf of the Australian people to those Chinese who have suffered from the virus while commending Beijing for its efforts to contain its spread. Empathy should have been the tenor of our Chinese diplomacy at this moment, not language that sounds accusatory or judgemental. There are three fundamental reasons for this: (i) because empathy is always a sound basis for good diplomacy; (ii) because of the cultural sensitivities in China (and other East Asian countries) about avoiding “loss of face”; (iii) because of the realist fact that China is an emerging great power and crucial for Australia’s economic wellbeing and security.

Secondly, Australia should have publicly distanced itself from the Trump administration’s inflammatory claims that China, either deliberately or incompetently, is responsible for the pandemic. Trump’s calling it the “China virus” has been a particularly egregious roadblock to developing the essential cooperation needed to solve the crisis. The virus is a human health reality, not a Chinese invention.

Thirdly, Australia should be reaching out to states in the region (especially Indonesia and Papua New Guinea), first to offer assistance in their efforts to combat the disease, and secondly, to develop a network of smaller states with similar interests in developing a global effort to bring the pandemic under control. As a network (not as individual states) they could use their collective influence to try to mediate a less combative relationship between Beijing and Washington, at least on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, Morrison and Payne would have us punching far too high above our weight, effectively threatening China with an angry international inquiry designed to humiliate the government in Beijing. This amounts to Australia cutting off its diplomatic nose to spite its security face.

How stupid is that!

Allan Patience is a political scientist in the University of Melbourne.

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