For more than a decade, Australia has faced a seemingly impossible choice: whether to strengthen ties with its closest ally, the United States, or with its largest trading partner, China.
But the Covid-19 pandemic – which has highlighted the dangers posed by both Donald Trump’s nativism and Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism – is forcing Australia to confront a new option: choose neither.
Trump is not interested in leading the world out of this crisis. Unlike his predecessors, he does not try to exercise global influence by asserting control over international agencies; instead, convinced that such bodies undermine the US’s authority, he tries to ruin them.
This approach was on display last week, when he threatened to stop funding the World Health Organization within 30 days if it does not agree to unspecified reforms.
But the pandemic has also demonstrated the threat to global order posed by Xi’s China, the world’s other great power.
The cover-up of the initial outbreak in Wuhan and the unreliability of information released by Beijing have demonstrated that it is not just China’s residents – particularly its ethnic minorities – who will suffer the consequences of Xi’s increasingly repressive, secretive rule.
This leaves Australia in uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory. It has committed troops to each of the US’s major conflicts since the second world war to prove its worth as a security ally, but Washington is adding to the instability that the alliance was designed to prevent.
Meanwhile, Australia’s economy has become one of the most dependent on China in the developed world. Today, relying on these two great powers as sources of security and prosperity seems increasingly risky. Australia will frequently need to find new partners, or act alone.
Unfortunately, the recent response by prime minister Scott Morrison and foreign minister Marise Payne to this predicament – their push for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 – was a mishandled mess.
It not only raises concerns about whether Canberra can competently deal with its emerging diplomatic challenge but – as Australia now faces a trade backlash from China – it also shows the potential costs of failure.
The call for the inquiry was announced by Payne last month in an interview on ABC’s Insiders in which she appeared to blame China and the World Health Organization – a position that seemed to echo the White House’s increasingly strident rhetoric. But it quickly emerged that Canberra had not tried to rally support for the proposal.
This left Australia as a lone voice on the international stage – a situation that unnecessarily exposed it to Beijing’s fury.
Australia, in the past three years, has prided itself on being the first country in the world to introduce comprehensive laws aimed at curbing Chinese foreign interference and was the first country to completely ban Huawei from participating in its 5G network. But this made it harder for Canberra to try to persuade China that it was not the target of an inquiry, and more likely that Beijing would react with venom.
To gather backing for the inquiry, Morrison called Trump, who showed support, and European leaders, who were reluctant to proceed while they were in the grip of domestic Covid-19 outbreaks. Morrison and Payne made no apparent attempt to discuss the proposed inquiry with Beijing, but insisted that China must cooperate.
Chinese officials and state media reacted furiously, and with typically churlish aggression. China’s ambassador to Australia warned that Chinese consumers may boycott Australian wine and beef – and, several weeks later, China cut imports from four Australian abattoirs. It has since imposed 80% tariffs on Australian barley, and has reportedly moved to restrict imports of Australian coal.
China did not link these moves to the inquiry. It said the beef ban was due to health and safety concerns, the coal restrictions were to support domestic suppliers, and the barley tariffs followed an investigation launched in November 2018 into claims Australia has been deliberately selling the barley cheaply. As is often the case with China, the exact reason for its decisions remain unclear.
In the end, Australia dropped its proposal for an inquiry which would be conducted outside the WHO. Instead, it did what it should have done all along – worked alongside like-minded nations to win broad support for an inquiry.
It backed a European Union resolution for an independent inquiry that will be conducted by the WHO’s oversight committee, which is chaired by Dr Felicity Harvey, a visiting professor at Imperial College London. Unlike Australia, the EU was not subject to Chinese retribution.
China eventually became a co-sponsor of the proposal, which was passed unanimously by the WHO’s 194-member governing body. Notably, Xi, unlike Trump, accepted an invitation to appear before the body.
Morrison and the cabinet were right to push for an inquiry. Of course, the world needs to understand this pandemic. And countries such as Australia – which has the world’s 13th-largest economy – should be willing to lead the push for international action.
But, in this new global environment of mistrust and disorder, Australia will need to change the way it operates. It will increasingly need to act without counting on US support, particularly as some of Trump’s stances – especially his tilt towards protectionism – gain traction in Washington.
It will need to take a more active role in bodies such as the WHO, especially as the US turns it back on such agencies and China tries to assume the mantle of leader. But Australia should allow China an opportunity to act in good faith, rather than provide Beijing with a justification for belligerence. And it will need to consult with other partners, which may be wary of moves that goad China.
This is not beyond Australia’s leaders or diplomats. But it will require the government to avoid taking positions that unnecessarily stoke US-China tensions or damage ties with Beijing.
Nor should its messages be designed to suit domestic audiences, or dropped without warning in a Sunday morning interview.