JOCELYN CHEY. Corona Politics and China Relations

Recent media discussion of relations between Australia and China seems run to a simplistic logic, dividing the world into goodies and baddies. Such a line is being promoted by Donald Trump in an attempt to shift blame for the spread of Covid-19, and now prominent Republican Mitt Romney has joined the chorus, calling for the US to unite with its friends “against China’s untethered abuse.”

As Canberra charts our international future post-virus, surely we can maintain a more nuanced understanding of how to engage with the People’s Republic of China.

There is a habitual pattern to how the Chinese Communist Party comes to terms with disaster reporting and relief, as Geoff Raby has recently described. Denial, cover-up and belated response are typical of authoritarian regimes, but that is not sufficient reason to withdraw cooperation with them. Initial reaction by the Soviet Union government to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 was quite similar to the CCP response to Covid-19.

One thing was however very different. At that time US President Reagan was pursuing an anti-communist foreign policy, but the international community was still able to work with Russia with the aim of preventing reoccurrence of nuclear disasters. Reagan called Russia the “Evil Empire” in a 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, referring to its “aggressive impulses,” but fortunately American allies did not tamely fall into line behind him. Just two years later, recognising the potential global threat to the environment and to human life posed by the spread of radioactive materials, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) set up the International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG) to make nuclear safety clear and accessible for all. This timely initiative was fortunately in place to help manage the aftermath of Chernobyl.

The corona virus is a global threat to human life and the international economy. This should prompt international consideration of whether a new and stronger mechanism could help to prevent, control and treat future pandemics and global health crises. The World Health Organisation clearly has limitations and its shortcomings have been demonstrated, but its power to act is limited. It is unable to enter a country to give advice or lend assistance unless given an official invitation, so was slow to engage with the developing crisis in China. Perhaps its mandate needs to be strengthened, or a new entity might be established with increased power of advice and intervention.

Positive and constructive suggestions should be welcome for all parties, but Foreign Minister Marise Payne seems not to have remedial action to prevent future pandemics in mind when she told the ABC on 19 April that there should be an independent international inquiry into the development of Covid-19. Urging the need for transparency, she was clearly directing criticism at Beijing.

She went on to say that Australia’s whole relationship with China was now under review, “in the light of changes in the world economy, in the light of changes in international health security, and so many other things.” In other words, her focus was on apportioning blame for the virus outbreak and mobilising international forces to contain possible future rogue behaviour, not on practical steps to guard against future health emergencies.

Of course, all international relationships should be continually assessed and reassessed, but Minister Payne’s statement seems not to have any practical outcome in bilateral relations with China in mind (except possibly that of attracting positive comment from Washington). Interestingly, it provoked a rather mild reaction from Beijing, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang remarking at a press conference, “I have to say that the so-called independent review proposed by the Australian side is political manoeuvring in essence. It will disrupt international cooperation in fighting the pandemic and goes against people’s shared aspiration.”

Further, in response to a request for a written statement, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Australian Financial Review, “It is our hope that Australia will meet China halfway and make joint effort to advance a comprehensive strategic partnership based on mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit.” I read this as an important olive branch being offered and hope that it will not be rejected out of hand.

Bismarck famously remarked, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.” In the case of Australia-China relations, there is no chance at all of achieving results, whether in terms of health cooperation or of government-to-government relations and dialogue, if one starts from an adversarial position. Proposals for greater cooperation and engagement present more possibilities and confidence-building starts with practicalities. In the present virus-dominated international environment, we should surely preference human health and safety above ideology.

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Jocelyn Chey is Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney and Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and UTS. She formerly held diplomatic posts in China and Hong Kong. She is a member of the Order of Australia (AM) and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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9 Responses to JOCELYN CHEY. Corona Politics and China Relations

  1. Avatar David Brown says:

    I expect Trump and the related Australian LNP/Murdoch/Gina/IPA miscellaneous attempts to secure Trump’s re-election in November will all be forgotten and replaced with many other foolishnesses as soon as the results of that election are finally confirmed

  2. Avatar Niall McLaren says:

    While Madam Payne is busy organising an “independent, transparent enquiry in to the development of Covid-19 pandemic,” could she also run another “independent, transparent enquiry” into the causes and conduct of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya and the rest of the tortured Middle East?

  3. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    There are no saints in political power games around the world, each of the adversaries have/continues to commit atrocities while the kettle keeps calling the pot black. However, comments by adversarial journalists in the main stream media paint the world in black and white. The road to the next mega-conflict, likely a nuclear war, is strewn with mutual vilifications.

  4. Avatar Dufa Wira says:

    I beg your pardon, Prof. Chey and Peoples Republic of China (PRC).

  5. Avatar Dufa Wira says:

    Thanks for this article Ms Chey. I have been thinking much the same. “Denial, cover-up and belated response are typical of authoritarian regimes, but that is not sufficient reason to withdraw cooperation with them.” Given the very small number of non-authoritarian regimes that exist I would say that most governments would have reacted in a similar way, pro-rata. Perhaps the SARS-COV-2 virus has been bubbling around the back-blocks of Wuhan since October 2019, before coming to local notice in late November. That the President of a nation state the size of the PCR took only about a month to recognise, investigate and then report an unknown viral outbreak to the WHO is bloody remarkable.

    Still, there is a legitimate global interest in the facts, even at the risk of full exposure. So in, my view, there must be an independent international inquiry.

    What I am troubled about is the ‘pile-on’ by the PCR, what others have called “wolf diplomacy”, and I do take issue with that.

    You cite the ABC interview with Minister Payne by David Speers, and conclude that “Urging the need for transparency, she was clearly directing criticism at Beijing.”
    Your link to the transcript is helpful. Reading it, I understand how some may feel that criticism is implied but, I found Ms Payne was careful with her words, and I heard no directed criticism. Marise Payne seems to be aware of her responsibilities, unlike David Spears, who’s SkyNews agenda is clear. That he is encouraged by the ABC is regrettable, but his bias must be discounted and I trust listeners of Chinese heritage will do so, as I do. You go on to say that “her focus was on apportioning blame for the virus outbreak and mobilising international forces to contain possible future rogue behaviour” but that is not what I heard.

    Unfortunately the first hand report of Andrew Tillett’s interview with Chinese Ambassador Cheng Jingye (China consumer backlash looms over Morrison’s coronavirus probe) is locked behind the AFR’s paywall. However The Guardian reports the reaction from Hu Xijin, the editor of the state-run Global Times: “Australia is always there, making trouble. It is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes. Sometimes you have to find a stone to rub it off,” Hu said. The Guardian goes on to state that Hu’s comments echo that of China’s ambassador to Australia, Jingye Cheng, who told Australian media at the weekend that pushing for an inquiry could result in a boycott of the country’s goods.

    I was also troubled by your concluding reference to Bismarck: “Politics is the art of the possible …”. The same Bismark who, despite strong democratic resistance, was responsible for the authoritarian constitution and institutionalised militarism of Wilhelmine Germany after the crushing of France in 1870-1*. We all know how that went.

    Sometimes co-operation with authoritarian regimes must be reconsidered.

    *John Moses (2018) Between Truth and Polemic: Comprehending Imperial Germany’s War-Aims 1914-18

  6. Avatar Richard England says:

    The Australian Government’s handling of relations with our most important trading partner drives me to despair. Our only hope is that the Chinese wind down the thankless and unpleasant job of communicating with our obnoxious and stupid Government, and concentrate on maintaining amicable relations with the relevant companies. It is most certainly in the interests of the companies and the Australian people that they keep the trade going.

  7. Blame game is anything but to avoid to achieve any constructive and beneficial bilateral relationship. I support Prof Chey’s wise word:”In the case of Australia-China relations, there is no chance at all of achieving results, whether in terms of health cooperation or of government-to-government relations and dialogue, if one starts from an adversarial position. Proposals for greater cooperation and engagement present more possibilities and confidence-building starts with practicalities. In the present virus-dominated international environment, we should surely preference human health and safety above ideology.
    If Australia hopes to have a true Independent Commission to help to find the cause of Coronavirus and prevent another happening in future for the good of global family, it would be better not to point finger to China but request support of UN to set it up properly, China, I believe, will not oppose it on that basis. The legal convention of “not guilty until proven otherwise” has been ignored. That said a lot for anti-China bashing Western politicians, media and journalists. I am a peace-maker.

  8. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    And to-day by Nine Journalist Chris Uhlmann a totally partisan Trump-aligned slap to the face of China in The Age/SMH. Unbelievable – as if the ministerial propaganda sheet directly from Marise PAYNE’s office (who has just five minutes earlier been handed her own song sheet version from Washington DC). I despair…

  9. Avatar Anthony Pun says:

    The Australian call for an inquiry into the Wuhan outbreak is perceived by China as the Australian government’s siding with US in the coronavirus blame game, the new front in the Cold War 2 between US and China. Since Australian media and some political leaders were involved in China bashing since Dec2016, the Chinese, as Australia No.1 trading partner, has been extremely reserved and circumspect about making any “threats” on trade, tourism and student. Unfortunately, Australian media (SMH) has spun Ambassador Cheng’s statements out of proportion in an article written by a recent anti-China hawk Peter Hartcher. The fury has been whipped up and aroused Asean interests when Lesley Fong (fmr. Ed Straits Times), SCMP and Global Times, have joined in the discussion!. The adverse and hyped up reaction by Australian government revealed a great sensitivity to suggestions of trade, tourism and student number cuts to a point that they can dish out criticism but cannot take it. The collateral damage to this type of propaganda game is chilling of the Australia-China relations, increased xenophobia against Chinese Australians and threatening the good economic security of Australia with China. In reading the Prof. Laurenson’s article published in the Global Times (28Apr2020), despite his denial about Australia being the lap dog of the US, it gives away the facade that ACRI has changed color and confirmed Australia is the de facto Deputy Sheriff of the US. His lack of empathy to the xenophobic effect of the anti-China sentiments is worrying; and the shift from left to right will attract the same type of criticism about the NFCAR membership discussed in Prof Chey previous article in P&I recently. A change of leadership in ACRI would be the beacon to signal that a change of Australia-China relations for the better has begun.

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