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The Mouse Roars: Australia, China and a Coronavirus Independent Inquiry

Australia matters little when it comes to international muscle.  It is the retainer and pretender of power, a middle-distance runner who runs out of puff on the final stride.  The big boys and girls look, agog. Why did you even bother?  In the recent international relations shouting match (for Australia, shouting; for China, sotto voce with a touch of menace), you are left with a remarkable impression that Australia has the sort of heft to terrify opponents.  It never has and never will, except when it comes to victimising refugees and bullying neighbouring states in the Pacific, whom they supposedly claim to have respect for.  On all other matters, its best to consult the US State Department dispatches.

With a lack of prudence, the mouse has decided to roar.  The theme tune: Chinese responsibility for COVID-19.  The object: to take the lead in holding Beijing to account for the losses arising from it.  It began with a certain rush of blood arising from a phone call between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and US President Donald Trump on April 22.  Morrison emerged from the call brashly confident: an independent inquiry (however oxymoronic) into the origins of the pandemic, should be formed.

A letter to various world leaders was drafted and sent, and received a generally cool response.  To spend time pursuing such an effort was an unnecessary distraction, taking away from the main task at hand: to battle the immediate effects of COVID-19.

Looking at this behaviour with puzzlement, veteran journalist Tony Walker suggested that Morrison, having created himself a sizeable hole, was intent on digging further.  “Prime Minister Scott Morrison has excavated a diplomatic cavity for himself and his country as a consequence of an unwise intervention in the debate about China’s responsibility for a coronavirus pandemic.”

Beijing is certainly showing signs of assisting an enlargement of that cavity.  China’s ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye has spoken of tourists “having second thoughts” and parents of students reconsidering sending their children to a place “they find is not so friendly, even hostile”.  There have been threats of slapping punitive tariffs on Australian barley (upwards of 80 percent) and halting beef exports. Red meat from four Australian suppliers, who control more than a third of the country’s exports to the PRC, have been banned.

The official justification – that Australian exporters had breached quarantine and other health regulations – conceals the retributive motivation of the decision.  Publicly, Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham is playing dumb.  “Chinese officials both publicly and privately are adamant that these are unconnected and so it is the best interests of our farmers and exporters for us to treat these issues all on their merits, and certainly from our policy perspective these are completely unconnected issues.”

The response to China’s moves has been marked by smugness, and also omits the fact that Australia has been more than happy to impose duties on Chinese steel, aluminium and chemicals for the best part of a decade.  Australian journalists and commentators are confident that Chinese threats to abandon Australian iron ore in favour of Brazilian options are being dismissed.  According to the Australian Financial Review, “there simply isn’t enough of the core commodity used to make steel to meet China’s demand.”  UBS analyst Glyn Lawcock is quoted to add credibility to the claim.  “With the market tight, it is difficult for China to source iron ore from alternative sources.”  The general sentiment at the AFR, then, is that China is simply too prudent to risk self-harming in the matter, given that 62 percent of its iron ore hails from Australian sources.  The same cannot be said about coal.

The strategic fraternity also fail to sight Morrison’s large and self-destructively aimed shovel, with its not so well concealed US inspiration.  Peter Jennings, Executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, actually seems to think that the words “transparent” and “independent” would go hand-in-hand with “inquiry” into COVID-19.  For any such pursuit to be worthwhile, it would have to be divorced from countries who had suffered harm, a decidedly difficult prospect given the virus’ devastating spread.

Jennings prefers to lob a grenade of accusation or two against China, making the trite point that they have “something to hide”.  He omits the patent truth that China’s great accuser, the United States, has done its fair share of hiding and concealing matters relating to the coronavirus since it started to make its deadly impression.

It would be hard to forget the various twists and turns of Trump, who has done his heroic best at diminishing the effect of the virus while inflating the efforts of combating COVID-19.  On February 28, he claimed that the virus “like a miracle”, would “disappear”.  On March 4, he trotted out that cruel thesis that influenza kills with greater effect, suggesting that the novel coronavirus was pygmy-like by comparison, a view rejected by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci before Congress a week later.  He has never tired of suggesting that the United States was, and remains, the “most prepared country in the world”. Then there is that most superb of howlers, the suggestion that coronavirus be treated by injecting disinfectant into the body.  (Another lesser known bright idea he entertained: radiating patients with UV light.)

Australia finds itself, not so much an unwitting as a witless attachment in the pandemic politics of COVID-19, but best not let the ASPI tell you about it.  Given that prudence and discretion have been banished from Canberra’s corridors, the issue of swatting Australia for its fanciful presumptions is very much on the cards.  Those in the business of dealing with China in a direct, and it should be said more mature way, may well dread this Morrison moment.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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