Media in the Asian Century: On our Quad bikes

Mar 26, 2021

The most concrete measure to come out of the March 12 Quad summit was a plan for India’s huge pharmaceutical industry to manufacture one billion doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine financed by the US and Japan for world-wide distribution to regions in need, particularly the most remote.

As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Peter Jennings noted in The Australian, Canberra was already pledged as a “last-mile” deliverer in the Pacific islands and Timor-Leste. Now Morrison had signed us up for the same role across all of  Southeast Asia.

“This is vital work, but we should have no illusions about the scale of the task involved,” Jennings wrote. “If Canberra is seriously going to tackle last-mile vaccine delivery through Southeast Asia, this could absorb every Australian Defence Force aircraft, ship and military unit, along with much of Virgin and Qantas.”

So far, Jennings noted, Australia’s offer at the Quad was limited to $100m ($US77m) for provision of vaccines, “yet another example of the low-cost leadership of which we are so nationally fond. Does this in any way meet the scale of the problem?”

Again, no follow-up questions by the Canberra press gallery, or any sign of engagement by defence and other agencies with Southeast Asian countries on how Australia might fulfill this Quad mission, or indeed if it is welcomed.

Kokoda spirit

But if Canberra’s response to the mounting Covid-19 epidemic in Papua New Guinea is any guide, we will be struggling with the task.

With PNG’s 500 doctors and 4,000 nurses starting to fall in large numbers to the virus, and warnings that the biggest hospitals in Port Moresby and Lae might effectively shut down, it took desperate calls by regional affairs experts to galvanise the Morrison government into action.

What got through? According to The Sydney Morning Herald’s Anthony Galloway on March 12:

“Alarms began to ring in Canberra when the Chinese government last week tweeted it was ready to come to the assistance of Papua New Guinea and send its COVID vaccines to the country which has been crippled by another wave of the virus.”

Nothing like the Chinese to make Canberra sit up. By March 16, a scoping team of experts was on its way to Port Moresby, and a batch of 8,000 vaccines arrived from Australia this week to immunise front-line medical staff, amid much invoking of the Kokoda legacy. “They’re our family. They’re our friends. They’re our neighbours. They’re our partners. They have always stood with us and we will always stand with them,” Morrison said.

But PNG is a country of nearly 9 million people. So far, Morrison and his health minister Greg Hunt have laid it on the European Union to release 1 million vaccines ordered by Australia so they can be sent to PNG.

Some reader’s letters in newspapers suggested it might be the Christian thing instead for Australia to divert part of its own CSL-made vaccine supplies to PNG, given the existing low risk to Australia’s population, the severity of the epidemic in Europe, and the risk of Covid jumping across the Torres Strait as well as desperate vulnerability of PNG’s people.

Only the New Daily’s Josh Butler edged into this question. “Despite the big-ticket announcement from Mr Morrison – in a formal announcement attend by Senator Payne, Pacific Minister Zed Seselja, and chief medical officer Paul Kelly – the 8000 doses represent just 0.6 per cent of the 1.3 million shots of vaccine currently in Australia,” Butler wrote.“It’s also just 0.015 per cent of the total 53.8 million AstraZeneca doses that Australia has contracted.”

But, Butler wrote, “instead of sending more of Australia’s guaranteed supplies, such as from the one million doses of AstraZeneca that will roll off production lines each week at Melbourne’s CSL facility from March 22, Mr Morrison said he was asking AstraZeneca to release more of our European-made doses directly to PNG. Mr Morrison defended the amount of help offered to PNG, saying COVAX [the international vaccine distribution consortium] would deliver nearly 590,000 vaccines to the nation by June.

All in all, Morrison’s government was getting bad marks for its slowness. “It might not have been possible to know when the pandemic would hit PNG, but it was surely predictable that it would arrive sometime, “ASPI’s Jennings commented in The Australian.  “Should we have been thinking about the size and shape of an Australian emergency response?”

Chris Overland, onetime kiap (patrol officer) in Papua New Guinea, was more scathing in the PNG Attitude blog. “It is little short of astounding that the Australian government has, until now at least, utterly failed to grasp the potential scale of the catastrophe looming on our door step,” he wrote. “Once again, our government has been effectively “asleep at the wheel” when it comes to what he [Morrison] terms ‘our Pacific family’.”

Canberra would need to do “much more than send a few container loads of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine,” Overland said. “Specifically, it will need to send a small army of people to help distribute and deliver the vaccine. To do this speedily and efficiently seems likely to require a significant military effort because only the military has the logistical capacity required, e.g., aircraft, helicopters, portable refrigeration and the capacity to put boots on the ground in very remote and inaccessible locations.”

Great and powerful friends

There was rejoicing in the corridors of Canberra and the newsrooms of Australia on March 16 when The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher delivered the news that the United States was firmly supporting Australia against Chinese economic coercion.

President Joe Biden’s co-ordinator of Indo-Pacific affairs, Kurt Campbell, assured Hartcher that China had been told  “we are not going to leave Australia alone on the field.”

“We have made clear that the US is not prepared to improve relations in a bilateral and separate context at the same time that a close and dear ally is being subjected to a form of economic coercion,” Campbell said.

And indeed, two days later when Biden’s secretary of state Anthony Blinken met Chinese counterparts at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, he mentioned this too, and raised it again in a public speech.

It was a theme taken up by correspondents in Europe. Pressed by Latika Bourke of the SMH, NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said China “had behaved very badly against Australia” after it pushed for an inquiry into the origins of coronavirus. He wanted to expand the trans-Atlantic body to non-members as a way for “like-minded democracies” to stand up to what he called bullying by Beijing. How exactly? He said this could involve an exchange of information and jointly participating in unspecified “activities”.

In Canberra, Ben Packham of The Australian hailed British prime minister Boris Johnson’s announcement of a new strategic “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific. This will include sailing his navy’s new aircraft-carrier around the region. British high commissioner in Canberra Vicki Treadell said the policy recognised the “coercive actions of China” in the region, and “the weaponisation of trade policy as we have seen perpetrated on Australia”. Johnson’s strategic pivot, editorialised The Oz, “sends a message that leaders in Beijing would be sensible not to ignore.”

That this all seems to signal that the Morrison had got out of its depth on relations with China and welcomed rescuing by old Western friends – while other nations like Japan and New Zealand had managed to avoid economic punishment for similar differences with Beijing — was not a point taken up by our foreign affairs reporters.

Best no-one asks Morrison if he’s “lost control” of foreign policy.

High praise

But could Morrison actually be the Talleyrand, Bismarck, or Metternich of Australian diplomacy? A headline in The Australian after the March 12 video meeting of the Quad leaders seemed to suggest this: PM better at foreign policy than Keating or Rudd.

The article below, by foreign editor Greg Sheridan, was somewhat more hedged. “Scott Morrison could turn out to be a more important and successful foreign policy prime minister than either of his Labor competitors, Paul Keating or Kevin Rudd,” Sheridan wrote, perhaps not the highest bar in his terms.

“Sensibly, Morrison is not claiming exclusive authorship of the newly energised Quadrilateral Dialogue comprising Australia, the US, Japan and India. But that is not to say he won’t wildly overstate its importance. He told government MPs the Quad heads of government meeting on the weekend was “the most significant thing to have occurred to protect Australia’s security and sovereignty since ANZUS”. No commentator has been more pro-Quad than me, but that claim is frankly ridiculous.”

Still Morrison had been “an exceptionally successful foreign policy PM, Sheridan went on, listing “five big successes”: managing Donald Trump, getting the US engaged on the Quad, the Paific “step-up”, hardening the country against Chinese interference, and boosting defence spending (though not enough).

Morrison had made two big mistakes: calling, on our own, the Covid inquiry, and appointing “foreign and defence ministers who won’t lead the strategic debate at a time of epic strategic challenge”. Nonetheless, Sheridan summed up, “Morrison’s positive balance is very strong.”

His colleague Paul Kelly was also enthralled at Morrison’s mastery. “In recent days Australia’s head of government diplomacy has been on vivid display,” Kelly intoned, pointing to Mathias Cormann’s appointment as OECD Secretary-General and the first leaders’ meeting of the Quad.

“Both are significant diplomatic triumphs for Australia and Scott Morrison in a complex global environment where rapid shifts in geo-strategy, technology, economics, climate change and COVID politics are driving new alignments in a post-Trump era. These are wins for Australian agency and activism. They shoot down progressive media mythology that Australia was becoming an isolated, almost pariah nation, over climate change. They contradict the progressive dogmatism about Morrison as a limited marketing man, an inexperienced amateur and out of his depth in foreign policy. And they expose the obsession at elite levels that our Asian diplomacy had fallen into second-best disrepair.”

Perish such thoughts indeed!

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