GEOFF RABY. PM’s Virus Inquiry was a Lose-Lose Call (AFR 4.5.20)

The Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister have handily demonstrated over the past fortnight how not to get an international inquiry into the origins and early management, or mismanagement, of COVID-19.  It has been a useful lesson for students of strategy and how the Government in future might better advance Australian national interests.

Of course, as the Prime Minister correctly said, there is nothing wrong in wanting an inquiry. When social interaction resumes, around the barbeque everyone will sensibly agree that we should know more about what happened, who knew, when, and what action was taken. Certainly, the WHO will be involved in this once the emergency has passed, and Australia’s representatives to the WHO will be, in concert with many others, supporting this work.

We have also learnt to our horror from this that the world lives daily on the precipice of deadly epidemics and pandemics. Information flows and international cooperation are essential, as is domestic preparedness, against any future pandemics. Many lessons are already being learnt. A major one is that no country can act alone to protect itself, no matter how isolationist its leader’s instincts may be.

The Prime Minister in his call for an inquiry was giving expression to the feelings of many, if not all, Australians. That is part of any Prime Minister’s responsibilities. The trick is, however, when he speaks, he is the Prime Minister. The rest of the world listens and takes seriously what he says.

At a time when most of the world, most notably except the Trump Administration, is looking for cooperation across borders to manage the ongoing pandemic and look to start economic reconstruction in future, the Prime Minister’s comments will be seen as divisive and unhelpful, especially while the pandemic is still raging in many countries. It is clear the target is China and, whether fair or unfair, will be seen as another Australian mini-me statement.

Conservative commentators have rushed to the Prime Minister’s defence, gushing with excitement that Australia has ‘stood up’ for itself. What they mean is that Australia has stood up to China. These days, that is the only expression of national assertiveness or independence that is required.

Maintaining good relations with China is not a policy end in and of itself. Having good relations with any country is a means to advance Australia’s national interests. These relationships are pursued and kept in good order because it is advantageous for Australia to do so.

Foreign policy is not being about nice for its own sake. Being nice is just another instrument of statecraft. It just happens that it becomes a more important instrument for smaller countries that have fewer arrows in their quiver of statecraft.

Australian Governments should seek to maintain good relations with China because it is more in our interest to do so, than not to do so. Failure in this complex task represents a failure to advance Australia’s interests. In maintaining good relations with great powers, it is not just the bilateral economic and trade benefits that are of importance. No matters of Australia’s security are unaffected by China. The same, of course, is true for the United States.

If the Prime Minister wished to advance Australia’s legitimate interest in understanding what happened in Wuhan in December last year and elsewhere in the world, where so many governments were slow to react when the alarm, albeit tardily, was first sounded, then the Prime Minister should have first been able to discuss this idea with President Xi Jinping. He could not do this because the bilateral relationship is frozen. Yet any initiative such as this that bears so directly on Australia’s interests will require either China’s active support or at least its tacit acquiescence.

The chances of either of these things happening now, which were never good to start with, have been blown. Australia has set back further its relations with China and not achieved an inquiry. It has been lose-lose. The exercise of a successful strategy is to identify achievable objectives which can be matched by the resources required to get the desired outcomes.

Australia could never have initiated, and internationally coordinated, an inquiry on its own. It could have at least tried to build a coalition of support among like-minded countries before publicly blurting out a demand for an inquiry, rather than a call around after the event.

Like-minded countries that may have been supportive are now likely to be leery of being too closely associated with an Australian initiative. Our highly professional and hard-pressed diplomats who will by now have been tasked to whip up support for the Prime Minister’s thought bubble will find their jobs that much harder.

On a matter of global importance of this scale and sensitivity, Australia needed to be in good company. We weren’t. Many leaders around the world would agree in-principle with such a proposal, but as a good strategist, they would want to know answers to such basic questions as under whose competency such an inquiry would be held – UN Security Council or WHO? Or if neither, are we to construct a new piece of international architecture to do so? Questions of authority, legitimacy, and composition would all need to be answered.

No quarter should be given to economic coercion, so Beijing’s official inferences that Australia could face economic consequences from its call for an inquiry over responsibility for the virus, even though China was not mentioned by name, should be firmly rebutted, as they were legitimately by Australia’s Foreign Minister. Such threats and actions by China do it no good and harms its standing and soft power. When used against Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, or the Philippines threats of economic coercion have been counterproductive.

When it looked as if relations between Australia and China could not possibly get any worse, they have.

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Geoff Raby AO is an Australian economist and diplomat. He served as the Australian Ambassador to the People's Republic of China from February 2007 until August 2011.

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