COVID-19, Trump, Xi and Canberra

Author: John McCarthy, Melbourne

Australia’s decision to spearhead an international enquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic — read China’s lack of transparency and the WHO’s mistakes — is a nice hoary bellow from the domestic political ramparts, but it is a policy mistake.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media at a press conference in Canberra, Tuesday, 21 April, 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Tsikas).

The Australian opposition’s support for the decision does not bathe the policy in divine light. It merely doubles the weight of the mistake.

Whichever country had decided to initiate such a policy, it would have been a bad idea.

True, the initial Chinese response to the virus, both in terms of policy blunders and obfuscation, was reprehensible.

The position of the WHO was different. It had to make calculations — as does any international organisation — about working with big nation states in the interests of getting results and making just criticisms of those states with the prospect of having future cooperation curtailed. The WHO continues to do much good on the ground. But as a policy body, a case can be made that it failed to show the requisite leadership in the early days of COVID-19.

But these are not reasons to mount an international enquiry at this time.

If ever there was a need to avoid recrimination and to achieve a measure of international cooperation in limiting the global impact of COVID-19, in picking up the pieces in the global economy when COVID-19 has retreated, and in building barriers against future pandemics, it is now.

This will be all the harder as the American President struggles in an election year to distract attention from his own woeful lack of leadership on COVID-19 by turning the spotlight on Beijing and the WHO.

Like it or not, if the world, and particularly the Asia Pacific region, is to recover from the economic abyss which it faces, China has to be involved — and it will make sure it is.

Like it or not, the international organisation which is, and will continue to be, most relevant to the health crisis in the developing world as COVID-19 plays out will be the WHO: no other is equipped to do its work.

In a crucial time for world health, should the WHO be distracted by Mr Trump and an ‘independent enquiry’ from helping our friends in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, whose stability is in our national interest? I think not.

Rather we all should get on with addressing global problems now and forget about the blame game at least until this is over. Moreover, while the Chinese may have acted in bad faith, management of the crisis by a number of other governments is also open to criticism.

It is a particularly bad idea that Australia initiate such a policy approach.

The timing of the Australian initiative strongly suggests it’s designed to show a measure of support — albeit qualified — for Mr Trump’s recent posturing. If that’s right, as Mr Trump would say, ‘sad’.

Most countries see this period as a time to carefully distance themselves from Mr Trump’s more egregious pronouncements. Unlike, say, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada, Australia seems not to.

So when Australia comes up with this sort of idea, there is an unspoken assumption abroad that it did so to please Washington, or worse, that our thinking is like Mr Trump’s. Neither assumption brings international respect. This consequence in turn diminishes the credibility of Australian ideas.

Australia’s friends and neighbours may also be curious about its diplomacy on COVID-19 from another perspective.

Primarily because of Australia’s geographic placement and demography, but also because its system’s overall handing of the crisis has been competent, COVID-19 has impacted it relatively lightly. If Australia’s problems are compared with those of the big European states and what is coming down the line in Indonesia, the sub-continent and Africa, should it be the prime mover on an enquiry of this sort? Would not others have better locus standi?

We have had no indication that Australia canvassed the views of fellow democracies and regional friends before making this decision. They deserved to have a say. It is a pretty big issue.

There will be a time to review the COVID-19 era and work out how to combat future such disasters. For now we should be getting on with the job of stopping it and repairing our economies. Leave grandstanding to Mr Trump and his like. We are better than that.

John McCarthy AO served as Australian ambassador to the United States, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and Mexico and as high commissioner to India. He is a former president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

A version of this article originally appears here on The Australian Financial Review.