JOCELYN CHEY. Corona Politics and China Relations

Apr 29, 2020

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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