MUNGO MACCALLUM. The miracle of being two-faced and saving both faces

In the end, it was all about saving face. The dodgy compromise resolution to set up an inquiry over the origins of coronavirus left everyone claiming a win.

Credit – Unsplash

The European Union took credit for moving it and pushing it through. The United Nations showed it could and would take a stand and produce consensus. The World Health Organisation took over the running of the exercise. China got its way about timing and at least some of the terms of reference. And of course it was all Australia’s idea in the first place. What’s not to like?

Well, principally the depressing fact that the bickering indeed delivered a unanimous vote, but in the process made it all but meaningless. China could not bully its way into having the inquiry closed down altogether, but it got the next best outcome: cutting off its balls.

This is why its bellicose diplomats were able to gloat that Australia’s boasting about delivering a diplomatic triumph was a joke. The proposal as put forward originally was for a totally independent tribunal, not bound by the WHO or any other organization, its timetable and range unconstrained by national politics from any direction.

What emerged was a bureaucratic shambles which will not even begin to be considered until, as China insists, the virus is under control – read, until China is bloody well good and ready to allow it to proceed. And what’s more, it is to be scientific and objective – Beijing-speak for absolving any blame from its own actions.

This is worse than pointless: it is seriously counterproductive. Not only will the inquiry, if it ever takes place, be unable to target the wet market in Wuhan, let alone the biological laboratories near the city; it will make it practically impossible for anyone else to initiate serious examination. China, once again, is showing the world – and particularly Australia – who’s the big kid on the block.

It did make concessions, deciding that a Clayton’s inquiry was a better option than straight out opposition. The moment of truth came probably when the intense lobbying from the Europeans, the Australians and their other allies persuaded large a chunk of the African block to support a resolution.

Africa, like much of the developing world, is hugely important to Beijing – a key part of the clientele it hopes to enlist as part of its Belt and Road policy by which it will dominate large parts of not only the international economy, but across strategic areas of influence across the board. A stoush was simply not with the risk, especially when there was an alternative that could protect its own interests without any serious threat.

So China, absurdly, became a co-sponsor – the outcome Australia was pretending to urge while working as hard as possible to force its major trading partner into a humiliating backdown. The Chinese, of course, were well aware of the manoevring, and promptly applied a touch of the lash: whacking up the tariff on barley.

Utterly unrelated, spluttered desperate ministers in Canberra – that dispute had been going on for months, long before COVID-9 had even been named. Trade and politics just don’t mix. The timing was a complete coincidence, and for the moment let’s ignore the clear warnings that barley may just be the first move – exports from wine and seafood to education were on a current list that could be brought into play at any moment.

What matters more is that coal is not immune and even iron ore, the great remaining prop to shore up Australia’s faltering economy, could be vulnerable. This is quite literally unthinkable to Scott Morrison and his colleagues – even they admit that during the 2009 GFC crisis, flogging raw materials to China was crucial to keeping the nation out of recession. Now recession is already upon us and to lose our only chance of avoiding a still worse future would be catastrophic.

And this is why Morrison’s government is determined to pretend that not only will it not happen, but it can’t – the Chinese need us just as much as we need them, that it is what the great trading relationship has always been all about. We are their friends and allies. We

are all in this together.

Unfortunately this is delusional, folie de grandeur. China wants our iron ore, indeed wants all the stuff we can flog, not just to China but to anywhere willing to pay. But China has other markets if it needs them. And if Australia attempts to retaliate, to play a bit of tit for tat and start some kind of mini-trade skirmish of its own and even lands a couple of punches, so what? The government of Xi Jinping does not have to worry about some kind of electoral backlash from its long-suffering citizenry.

Equally, it is silly for Morrison to insist that China stick to the rules, to appeal to the World Trade Organisation as an umpire, to assemble a coalition of like-minded nations to come together demanding free and fair trade. For starters it won’t happen; but even if Morrison could bring off another of his miracles, and confront Beijing with an ultimatum, the reply would be treated with precisely the same disdain China evinced last week.

The only bully big and ugly enough to give China pause is the USA, and its efforts in waging its own trade war with the dragon have not gone too well in recent times. We have clung to the belief, seldom if ever fulfilled since about 1942, that in the crunch Washington would come to our side. But our great and powerful friend has other preoccupations and particularly in the age of The Donald, bailing out ScoMo is not one of them.

And to his credit, Morrison has made it clear that he is not going to grovel to Trump’s America either, leaving it out of the loop during his push for an inquiry. The USA voted in favour, but was never an active player. So our leader’s sudden assertiveness can be called almost even handed.

Morrison has not only saved one face, but two. The trick is not to overplay his hand, and avoid the temptation to throw himself too far forward and fall flat on yet a third face.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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