JOHN McCARTHY. COVID-19 , Trump, Xi and Canberra(AFR 22.4.2020)

Australia’s decision to spearhead an international enquiry into the origins of the Covid19 pandemic –read China’s lack of transparency and the WHO’s mistakes –is a nice hoary bellow from our domestic political ramparts, but it is a policy mistake.

The Opposition’s support for the decision does not bathe the policy in divine light. It merely doubles the weight of the mistake.

Whichever country had decided to initiate such a policy, it would have been a bad idea.

True, the initial Chinese response to the virus, both in terms of policy blunders and deliberate obfuscation was reprehensible.

The position of the WHO was different. It had to make calculations–as does any international organization –about working with big nation-states in the interests of getting results and making just criticisms of those states with the prospect of having future cooperation curtailed. The WHO continues to do much good on the ground. But as a policy body, a case can be made that it failed to show the requisite leadership in the early days of COVID-19.

But these are not reasons to mount an international enquiry at this time

If ever there was a need to avoid recrimination and to achieve a measure of international cooperation in limiting the global impact of Covid19, in picking up the pieces in the global economy when COVID-19 has retreated, and in building barriers against future pandemics, it is now.

This will be all the harder as the American President struggles in an election year to distract attention from his own woeful lack of leadership on Covid19 by turning the spotlight on Beijing and the WHO.

Like it or not, if the world, and particularly the Asia Pacific region, is to recover from the economic abyss which it faces, China has to be involved -and it will make sure it is.

Like it or not, the international organization which is, and will continue to be, most relevant to the health crisis in the developing world as Covid19 plays out will be the WHO:  no one else is equipped to do its work.

At a crucial time for world health, should the WHO be distracted by Mr Trump and an “Independent enquiry” from helping our friends in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, whose stability is in our national interest? I think not.

Rather we all should get on with addressing global problems now and forget about the blame game at least until this is over. Moreover while the Chinese may have acted in bad faith, management of the crisis by a number of other governments is also open to criticism

My second point is that it is a particularly bad idea that Australia initiate such a policy approach

The timing of our initiative strongly suggests we wished to show a measure of support –albeit qualified-for Mr Trump’s recent posturing. If I am right, as Mr Trump would say, “Sad”.

Most countries see this period as a time carefully to distance themselves from Mr Trump’s more egregious pronouncements. Unlike, say, Japan, the UK, Germany and Canada, we seem not to.

So when we come up with this sort of idea, there is an unspoken assumption abroad that we did so to please Washington, or worse, that our thinking is like Mr.Trump’s. Neither assumption brings us international respect. This consequence in-turn diminishes the credibility of our ideas.

Our friends and neighbours may also be curious about our diplomacy on COVID-19 from another perspective.

Primarily because of our geographic placement and demography, but also because our system’s overall handling of the crisis has been competent, COVID-19 has impacted us relatively lightly. If our problems are compared with those of the big European states and what is coming down the line in Indonesia, the Subcontinent and Africa, should we be the prime movers on an enquiry of this sort? Would not others have better locus standi?

We have had no indication that Australia canvassed the views of fellow democracies and regional friends before making this decision. They deserved to have a say. It is a pretty big issue

There will be a time to review the COVID-19 era and work out how to combat future such disasters. For now, we should be getting on with the job of stopping it and repairing our economies. Leave grandstanding to Mr.Trump and his like. We are better than that.

John McCarthy has served as Australian ambassador to seven countries, including the US, Indonesia, Japan and India. 


John McCarthy has served as Australian ambassador to seven countries, including the US, Indonesia, Japan and India.

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19 Responses to JOHN McCARTHY. COVID-19 , Trump, Xi and Canberra(AFR 22.4.2020)

  1. Avatar J.Lee says:

    Could this just be internal Liberal Party politics and the need to keep Mr Dutton on a very short leash? Or have I just been watching too much Mad as Hell?

  2. Avatar Michael Flynn says:

    Noted that David Macilwain says there is evidence ” CV 19 is synthetic”. Perhaps this indicates its origin is in a CBW facility not a wet market. We could hope for a bats origin.

  3. Avatar Rory McGuire says:

    This article and the balance of comments suggest China did a relatively good job, starting as they had to, from scratch. What we really need to know is what Marise Payne and, presumably, DFAT were thinking in following Trump in starting a gratuitous war of words instead of cooperating as smoothly as possible on finding a solution to a serious problem.
    Whether Trump is malevolent or merely a fool is not yet clear but it is very clear that Australia should not be crawling into the sack with him: he has clearly been promoted beyond his level of competence.
    The only half-good thing about Trump is that he appears to have a dislike of war, or at least of getting America involved in new hot ones. If only Australia shared this caution: we can’t wait to get into any war going. And, hopefully until Trump, we have always been able to rely on our American friends to arrange one.
    But trouble looms: if Trump is consistent with his decision to cut funding to the WHO because of its (alleged) failure to deal competently with Covid-19, the Pentagon people must be getting very nervous indeed. It’s a long time since they had a win.
    The question is: has DFAT noticed?

  4. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    I understand that the US CDC did have staff located with China’s CDC, but they were withdrawn by the US, which even without hindsight seems a mistake. If there is to be an inquiry, perhaps it should be to examine the reasons for the US withdrawing CDC staff from China.

    Anyway, if the goal is to make the world safer, surely it is to strengthen each countries’ CDC capabilities. For this to happen, the world must work together. If I were the Australian government, I would prioritise strengthening inter-CDC relations with China and other countries.

  5. Avatar Andrew Fraser says:

    Im a little surprised that thre is such opposition to trying to find out what caused the coronavirus. It seems pretty obvious to me that if we accurately find out what caused it, we’re closer to finding out an antidote to it.
    Of course Trump will use it! But he’ll blame the Chinese anyway. Personally, one of the few positive things that might emerge from 2020 is that Trump will get rolled, but I don’t see that not having an inquiry is necessarily going to be a benefit to his opponents. In any event, such a political consideration should be necessary.
    I agree strongly , with the view that we need more international co-operation, not less. A properly conducted inquiry will lead to some finger-pointing, but there’s a lot more to gain from having such an inquiry than not.

  6. Mike Scrafton Mike Scrafton says:

    ‘the initial Chinese response to the virus, both in terms of policy blunders and deliberate obfuscation was reprehensible.’

    This seems to be the accepted verity. It’s not clear to me the situation was that black and white.

    Did local authorities blunder in the face of an unknown disease? Yes. But they were the first to confront it and the history of pandemics is a story of uncertainty and timidity at the first encounter with a virus. Look at the outbreak that began in California. They knew even less than the western nations at the start buy acted with alacrity. The experience of Dr Helen Chu in Seattle indicates how normal governments processes and inbuilt caution can look like a cover up. (

    What was the national Chinese government’s first responsibility? It was to Chinese citizens. A position all western democracies have reinforced by their own actions, of locking down borders and hoarding vital supplies. The Chinese government actions appear to have been vastly more successfully that that of western democracies, even if the figures are fudged.

    The Chinese also had no advanced warning whereas the poor performances of western governments were based on much better, although still incomplete, knowledge. The Chinese were quick to share the genetic code of the virus. In the end the Chinese saved many many Chinese lives which, by the standards espoused by Trump, Johnson, Macron etc, is the measure of success. Western governments that had the Chinese and Korean experiences to observe were far worse at responding.

    Moreover, the Chinese are, whether for altruistic, self interested reasons or a combination, providing extensive support to other nations while western nations were hijacking each others supplies and abandon allies to their fate.

    I’m not sure reprehensible is the correct term! This sort of judgement screws the debate.

  7. Avatar Tony Kevin says:

    Excellent essay by John McCarthy who along with Hugh White sharply condemns
    the foolishness of Australian government and opposition support for a biased enquiry into Chinese and WHO conduct in Wuhan . Sadly, the AFR supports this ( editorial today) . The Canberra foreign affairs elite have taken leave of their senses . I thought Foreign Minister Payne and DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson had better judgement.

    We can now expect the Chinese government to start officially releasing real evidence that in October , the American international military games team of 300 oddly mediocre athletes brought the virus to Wuhan , where these games were held. Their hotel , a subsequent hotspot for COVID-19 infection, is situated 300 metres from the Wuhan live food market. The Chinese CBW laboratory in Wuhan is much further away , across the river, and has a high reputation for biological safety. The Fort Detrick CBW laboratories in Maryland USA , on the other hand , had been closed down in July and their commanding officer sacked for poor quarantine of dangerous diseases. Circumstantial evidence, but quite damning. Not a conspiracy theory, but a hypothesis that should be tested by the committee, if it were a fair committee. This seems unlikely to happen.

    Australia , with much to lose in our relations with China, , should never have touched this can of worms. We lead with our chins every time.

  8. Avatar Richard N. England says:

    I don’t even agree that ” the initial Chinese response to the virus, both in terms of policy blunders and deliberate obfuscation was reprehensible”. The realisation that a new disease was causing a number of pneumonia deaths in Wuhan was a scientific discovery. Anybody who has made one, in Australia or anywhere, is accustomed to the fact that it will at first be pooh-poohed. It is also a fact that most claims of discovery turn out to be mistaken. Good new ideas need time to be tested by others and catch on. The evidence from China indicates that this process, and the subsequent government action was remarkably rapid, and for that reason, successful. I take my hat off to China, and scorn the critics whose ignorant countries are now in deep shit.

  9. Avatar David Brown says:

    whatever happens with the investigation…. Trump only cares until the US presidential election occurs in November

    meanwhile he will keep talking about the investigation of China and the WHO whenever he has a political opportunity (every day and night until November) his claims that China and the WHO are the cause of the American terrible performance in managing the COVID-19 pandemic

  10. Avatar David Brown says:

    timing driven entirely by Trump’s desperate campaign for reelection in November this year

  11. Avatar Jerry Roberts says:

    Agree absolutely. This is a time for international co-operation, not litigation.

  12. Peter Sainsbury Peter Sainsbury says:

    Instead of focusing on any deficiencies of China and the WHO in responding to the outbreak during Dec 2019 and Jan 2020, it would be more fruitful to focus on the deficiencies of the govts of the USA, Europe, Australia, Russia, China, Brazil etc. etc. to prevent and prepare for such an epidemic over the last 20 years. Oh yes, that’s exactly what the proposed enquiry is intended to avoid.

  13. Avatar Max Bourke AM says:

    Spot on John. It is just another variant of “look over there, nothing to see here”!!!

  14. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    Not much more than a part of the cold war between the US and China.
    Is the inquiry also going to explore how China managed to flatten the curve whereas COVID-19 is accelerating in countries such as the US and UK?

  15. Avatar Hal Duell says:

    By all means, let’s blame someone. There is potentially good profit to be had by sheeting home culpability for a set of circumstances that has tanked the world’s tourist industry and its oil price just for starters, to say nothing of societal and international good will and trust.
    And why not Canberra? We have extensive form in acquiescence. Following is a non-exhaustive list of Five Eyes false flags since 2001, all endorsed by Canberra.
    The Twin Towers and Building Number 7
    Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction
    The downing of MH 17
    The “annexation” of Crimea
    The poisoning of the Skripals with Novichok
    The gas attacks of al-Assad (the White Helmets)
    Maduro, the cocaine drug runner
    The nuclear ambitions of Iran
    The innocence of Israel
    And now Covid-19?
    That the loyal Opposition has signed off on this is not surprising. In fact, it is wholly expected, and it is that aspect of this charade that is, as the Donald would say, sad.

    • Avatar David Macilwain says:

      Just to add a little substance on the addition of Covid-19 to your list of eminent deceptions of the last two decades, I believe that Australia has shown itself to be the Building 7 of the CV pandemic, given that we have plunged enthusiastically into the same suicidal lock-down and societal train wreck as other countries really hit by the Virus without actually having something you could even call an epidemic, leave alone a pandemic.
      Add to that the evidence – certainly believed by the Chinese, who know more than any of us about the virus’ origins – that CV19 is a synthetic chimaera that was brought or came with a group of US soldiers to Wuhan last October.
      We may certainly agree with John McCarthy that provocation and aggravation of our very necessary relationship with China is a stupid idea, but emphatically reject his assertion that they engaged in “reprehensible obfuscation” and “policy blunders”. We should remember that they were facing a novel threat about which they knew little, and the WHO commended them on their openness and willingness to share information.

  16. Avatar John NOBEL says:

    It would seem Versailles on Lake Bloody Griffin hasn’t learnt from GWOT/ GFC, Vietnam, Singapore, Gallipoli, Boer War …, and Vanuatu to Darwin NT isn’t all that far!

  17. Avatar Ed Cory says:

    John, you make a good point about the consequences of being seen as a Trump lap dog. In this case there are also domestic implications too.

    Enthusiasm for an international enquiry, and calls for transparency by the players about who did what and when, are a two-edged sword. While we here in Australia we seem to batting well, there have been a few fumbles – there will be lessons to be learnt, if we care to look for them. And we do need to look for them – the hoped-for vaccine may not eventuate, it may be delayed, and/or it may not be the panacea many hope it to be. Never mind that Covid-19 may not be the last virus to threaten us.

    If an international enquiry is sauce for the goose, a domestic enquiry is sauce for the gander. Let’s wait for the government’s enthusiasm for that one.

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