RAMESH THAKUR. Sound the Trumpists: The deputy sheriff rides again – Part Three: Goading the dragon

Cockwomblette: A neologism coined to describe the lesser antipodean cousin of the cockwomble (see Monday’s Part One). Its natural habitat is the bush capital of the world; the inheritor of an obsequious line of deputy sheriffs.

Dear Leader’s grandstanding on China’s culpability on the CV crisis shows the old persona is still very much active. In his tilt at ‘negative globalism’ (no one knows quite what that means) during an address at the Lowy Institute on 3 October last year, Morrison had sounded like a distant antipodean echo of Trump’s disdain for multilateralism. On 19 April, Foreign Minister Marise Payne called for an independent global inquiry into the origins and China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. On 22 April, Morrison was reported as having canvassed the leaders of France, Germany and the US seeking support for giving the World Health Organisation (WHO), or another body, powers equivalent to those of a weapons inspector in order to avoid another catastrophic pandemic.

Let’s set aside the incoherence of this with his full-throated attack on ‘negative globalism’ back in October. What will very quickly be noted by countries around the region is that Australia is once more back as the deputy sheriff in the US-led posse hunting the China peril in the Asia–Pacific.

There will be many lessons to be learnt from the pandemic to help us be better prepared for emerging epidemiological crises in the future, including strengthening global governance structures and procedures to detect and defeat new strains of the coronavirus. China’s cooperation in studying the lessons in collaborative teams of international scientists and in establishing new institutional measures will be vital. Cooperation between Chinese and American experts and diplomats would also be beneficial for the world. Instead of problem-solving, the Trump-Morrison approach is an example of counter-productive finger-pointing that frustrates the very purpose it purports to achieve.  If you initiate megaphone diplomacy, you should not be surprised that the other party takes to the megaphone also and might in fact have a more powerful one handy.

Only someone as cognitively challenged as Trump could believe that the US can simultaneously disengage from multilateralism and prevent China, the next cab off the rank, from capturing the leadership-cum-influence ground thus vacated. Ditto for the belief that freezing funding from the world’s only organisation to deal with health emergencies, in the middle of the worst pandemic in over a hundred years, is a helpful contribution to crushing the coronavirus. Or that it will increase US leverage and diminish Chinese influence. Trump is yet to fill the US seat on the WHO Executive Board vacant since 2018. And Morrison has chosen to align Australia with self-defeating US unilateralism against the rest of the world.

To no one’s surprise, China flatly rejected calls for an independent international investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, saying it would merely distract from efforts to eradicate the pandemic. Beijing accused Australia of ‘ideological bias and political games’, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang saying: ‘At such a critical juncture, it is highly irresponsible to resort to politically motivated suspicion and accusation’.

China’s ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye warned of potential consumer boycotts that would damage Australian industries like education, agriculture and tourism. Trade Minister Simon Birmingham expressed disappointment at the ambassador’s ‘threats of economic coercion’. However, the question has to be asked: which country in recent years has weaponised trade more than the US, especially under Trump, with unilateral tariffs, sanctions and then secondary sanctions – sometimes on countries for wanting to comply with UN Security Council resolutions on Iran as they are legally obligated to?

Very quickly Australia was importing more CV-19 cases from Europe and the US than China, but returnees from these places were never locked down like Chinese-Australians; self-isolation will be fine, thanks. Racism? Never! Rather, as George Megalogenis explained, the differential treatment was:

an unavoidable diplomatic reality. Australia, like most Western countries, continues to tap dance around the fragile ego of Donald Trump. The Morrison government would have known that treating the US on the basis of hard evidence, as a risk equivalent to China or Iran, would likely have enraged a President who thought the coronavirus was a media beat-up.

That said, do we expect the Chinese people and government not to notice the double standard, the willingness to call out China’s culpability but stay silent on US incompetence, when the latter also puts Australian lives at risk?

In his guest column for The Economist, Kishore Mahbubani predicts: ‘The world after the crisis may see a hobbled West and a bolder China’. The US still has major immense residual powers in innovation, creativity, and educational and intellectual firepower. But the US and European reputation for financial competence and rectitude was badly eroded in the 2008–09 financial crisis and US moral, military and economic authority have been collapsing ever since the 2003 Iraq War. The advent of the Trump administration has consolidated the loss of US global authority.Why in these straitened circumstances Australia would volunteer to put its head above the parapets is quite a mystery. Morrison may just have demonstrated his genius for picking losers: a deputy sheriff riding alongside a hobbled global sheriff.

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Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.

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