MACK WILLIAMS. Covid-19, China and the WHO: Quo Vadis Australia?

A long time American UN observer in the US publication Foreign Policy ( “ WHO Becomes Battleground as Trump Chooses Pandemic Confrontation over Cooperation” 29 April 2020) has claimed that “fighting the coronavirus has become secondary as the US seeks to hamstring the WHO, turning it into a 2020 election issue along with Chinese trade”.

It revealed more information about President Trump’s campaign against the attacks on the WHO and China and also about the role Prime Minister Morrison has been playing than so far reported in the Australian media.

For some months, according to this report, the US has been seeking to enlist support for the restoration of Taiwan as an observer at the WHO in the certain knowledge that this would present fresh confrontation with China. In so doing, it claims that the US has placed a higher priority on fuelling criticism of China than seeking ways China and the US could collaborate in preventing the spread of Covid19. While there is support from foreign governments for the restoration of Taiwan’s observer status some reportedly fear Chinese reprisals and suspect it is part of a broader Trump plan to try to keep the focus on the failings of China and the WHO to distract attention from his own shortcomings in managing Covid19. And all of this in the context of the upcoming US elections. It reports that US diplomats in Geneva, New York and around the world have “invested enormous political capital” to bolster this campaign but it is struggling to gain international support.

It also reported that on 29 April the US distributed to some countries a proposal to:

“ immediately initiate an independent expert evaluation, in consultation with Member States, to review lessons learned from WHO-coordinated international health response to Covid19…(and address) the adequacy of WHO and Member State actions…. since the outbreak began: a full assessment of the timeliness, accuracy, and information sharing aimed at continuing the outbreak of the source”.

The US has little to show for its efforts – with stiff opposition from allies as well as rivals to lay the blame on Beijing or the WHO for the disease’s spread.

Despite protestations to the contrary, it has been no coincidence that in this period the Morrison government “launched” what it claimed as its own initiative for an independent review of the origins of Covid19 – clearly aimed at both China and the WHO. John McCarthy JOHN McCARTHY. COVID-19 , Trump, Xi and Canberra(AFR 22.4.2020)pointed out in his comprehensive commentary in Pearls and Irritations the “initiative” was seriously deficient in both process and substance. It was greeted with no enthusiasm (and even disdain) by the French, German, the EU and British. Little wonder as they all were heavily involved within the WHO in preparations for a major multilateral initiative on establishing rules urgently needed ( for Australia too) for the global development on Covid19 vaccines.

These would facilitate the equitable global distribution of a vaccine and prevent richer countries stockpiling for their own domestic use. Australian media comment on this critical initiative has been sparse. None pointed out that Australia appears not to have been involved in this extraordinarily wide multilateral proposal – either by choice or non-invitation! The sharp point on this is highlighted by overseas media reports that in echoes of the Cold War, the US and China are already competing strongly to purchase a German company that has made some headway on vaccine research.

The experienced and professional resources available to Morrison and Foreign Minister Payne must surely have been aware of this initiative. They would have pointed to the poor timing of a country of our modest stature sticking its neck out on a far more ambitious proposal. One targeting China and the WHO but seemingly excluding the US and other countries whose performance through the spread of Covid19 has raised some serious questions. And one for which the odds of success were so obviously remote – if only because the traditional US exceptionalist policy could be certain to oppose any outside “independent” review of its performance. Too often we have experienced the challenges of launching major global initiatives without undertaking the most comprehensive preparatory work with partners and friends and an extensive intelligence support role. Was it just another example of a brainsnap from the PMO or Ministers’ offices ? Surely it would have been discussed in the Canberra:Washington dialogues.

As reality started to check in, the Morrison government (despite the urging of the zealot Dutton) has begun to refine its position. Soon it was talking about giving the WHO significantly upgraded and unfettered rights to mount arms inspector type investigations into possible epidemics in any country. Then it segued into discussions at the next WHO meeting in May. The Foreign Policy report quoting “diplomatic sources” claimed :

“ Australia , which initially supported a US call for an early review of WHO’s response to the pandemic signaled(sic) this week in a closed-door meeting with WHO delegates that it is prepared to wait until the crisis has abated before such a review to be conducted”.

This has yet to be picked up in the Australian media.

There can be no doubting the critical global importance of a comprehensive review of the origins of the pandemic and its evolution – aimed at minimising the risk of future such disasters – and that this must involve China and the WHO. But it must also encompass the lessons from successes and failures of the various anti-Covid19 national campaigns around the world – including the US, the EU and the UK. Achieving the international cooperation which will prove vital to meet all our aspirations in this endeavour will be a very lengthy and complex task. One not aided at all by the “destructive diplomacy”, as described by a European academic, currently being employed by the US -and mirrored, at least initially, by Australia.

Urgent attention also needs to be devoted to the challenges still emerging. These include the global distribution supply networks of essential materials and equipment and the imminent spread of Covid 19 into Africa and other parts of the developing world (including especially for us the South Pacific). Let us not forget that this is a global pandemic which cannot be managed effectively for the longer term within hermetically sealed national borders.

Not surprisingly, Canberra’s attention has been devoted to containing Covid19 within Australia. Thankfully our experience so far continues to be better than that in many other countries. This should not distract us from the plight of so many others in our region and the wider world from where successively for far too long now we have turned our eyes and compassion. The war against Covid19 is a truly global challenge and one in which we should pull our weight. That surely has to be in our longer term national interest.

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Mack Williams former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.

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