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While Australia’s calls for an investigation into China’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak may not have helped relations with the powerhouse nation, they could prove a welcome move among Indo–Pacific neighbours. By Karen Middleton.

Australia pushes for global inquiry into outbreak

Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne and Prime Minister Scott Morrison in February.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

China’s President Xi Jinping has been hitting the phones. According to a recent statement from his foreign minister, Wang Yi, President Xi had 36 conversations earlier this month with the leaders of 29 nations and international organisations about the coronavirus outbreak. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison was not among them.

That a fellow member of the G20 did not make the Chinese leader’s top 20 or even top 30 priority list for consultations says everything about the state of bilateral relations.

Australia’s advocacy for an independent international inquiry into the genesis of the Covid-19 outbreak in the city of Wuhan, and Beijing’s handling of it, has not exactly moved it up Xi’s contact list.

“Our purpose here is just pretty simple,” Morrison said on Thursday. “We’d like the world to be safer when it comes to viruses. It seems like a pretty honest ambition … And I would certainly hope that any other nation, be it China or anyone else, would share that objective.”

Morrison and his foreign minister, Marise Payne, are determined to spearhead a global push for answers and measures to avoid a repeat.

And the prime minister has been making some calls of his own.

In discussions this week with United States President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, he pressed the case for an independent inquiry that would also examine the role of the World Health Organization (WHO), which is facing strong criticism of its close relationship with China.

This followed calls last week with the leaders of Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.

Surprising some within his own government, Morrison also proposed the WHO be given powers akin to international weapons inspectors to investigate any future disease outbreaks.

That idea has prompted others to query whether there is any existing legal mechanism to allow such a move.

Morrison added some detail on Thursday, suggesting membership of the World Trade Organization could be made contingent upon signing up to the arrangement – a move which, if accepted, would presumably force China to either comply or leave.

The initial response to Australia’s inquiry proposal was lukewarm.

ABC Radio reported French officials as saying international cohesion was the highest priority at the moment and that the British government believed it was too soon.

Payne told The Saturday Paper this week that there were precedents for such a review, which should be independent and not politicised, and that Australia was working with counterparts to build support. "This is the start of the conversation – noting the Covid-19 crisis is a continuing challenge for many countries,” Marise Payne said.

"We will continue discussions and consultations with partners on the establishment and operation of a review.”

She said no one country should feel singled out by the proposal for a review.

"It happens to be the fact that this virus began in Wuhan, China but, irrespective of where it began, all nations’ interests are served by having the best possible global health architecture, which is equipped to respond to future health crises. Given many countries are yet to reach their peak in infections, the review should take place at an appropriate time when all countries are ready to contribute."

The Saturday Paper has been told part of Australia’s reasoning for taking a lead is that its success thus far in containing coronavirus infections enables it to look outward in a way some struggling countries can’t.

Australia’s outspokenness may have boosted its standing among Indo–Pacific neighbour countries that are deeply dependent on China and now also in the grip of Covid-19.

“Many of the countries in South-East Asia and the Pacific are acutely mindful of the limits of their own power and of the preference for discretion being the better part of valour,” says John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University. “They respect Australia as an invested regional player that is prepared to call a spade a spade, and they look to us to do that.”

Blaxland says Australia’s push for an independent inquiry is a long-term strategic investment.

“China is being very assertive … and in the absence of American leadership, it’s really important that Australia look to muster whatever support it can in our neighbourhood to defend our interests,” he says. “And that’s why this is not just about coronavirus. This is about positioning for the future.”

Marise Payne’s announcement last weekend that Australia would push for a “review” of the outbreak prompted a sharp rebuke from China’s foreign ministry.

“We hope that Australia will do more things to deepen China–Australia relations, enhance mutual trust and help epidemic prevention and control in both countries,” a spokesman said, “rather than dancing to the tune of a certain country.”

China’s language was stronger in response to comments from Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton – made prior to Payne’s pronouncement – for China to be more “transparent”.

It particularly objected to Dutton citing US “documentation” relating to how the virus had spread.

China’s embassy in Canberra accused Dutton of acting on US orders and parroting a smear. “This fully exposes [his] ignorance and bigotry as well as their lack of independence in serving orders from others, which is pitiful,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

The Lowy Institute’s China specialist, Richard McGregor, suggests China’s rebuke should be seen in a global context. “We have to see it as part of a broader Chinese pushback against a whole manner of different people and countries,” he says, “… who are critical along similar lines to what we are. So, it’s not just about Australia.”

McGregor says Australia is right to raise transparency questions about China’s handling of Covid-19, but he queries how the messages are being sent.

“Why is Peter Dutton talking about this at all?” he asks. “It’s a foreign minister–prime minister issue. And, secondly, before going on about something as specific as an independent inquiry, it might have been good to have done it in concert with other countries, rather than drawing all the fire on us alone.”

The government plans to promote its proposal at next month’s meeting of the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s administrative body.

It favours using an existing multilateral body as the mechanism for an inquiry, although it has not fixed on exactly which.

Former New South Wales Police Force deputy commissioner Nick Kaldas, who more recently has been a United Nations investigator, believes any inquiry should be conducted through the UN, and probably through a Security Council resolution.

But as one of the council’s permanent five members, China has veto power. It would likely encourage Russia to also veto the move.

Kaldas argues it’s possible something could be negotiated and that others among the five permanent members would apply pressure. “They may put it to China that this is actually in everyone’s interest,” he says.

“If you haven’t done anything wrong and there is no problem, let’s have an investigation … At the moment there are all sorts of rumours and allegations floating around. This would be surely one way of putting it all to bed, once and for all. So, I think it may be something that people can be persuaded to look at, to the greater good, to try and clear the air and move on.”

Kaldas believes the kind of inquiry Marise Payne is proposing could be effective. “Sooner or later, if there’s an investigation, things will come out,” he says. “There will be people on the Security Council who will ask the pointy questions if things were not done properly, if the result is flawed, if things have been swept under the carpet. You cannot hide once there is proper – a structured – investigation with the terms of reference, a charter, a mandate and a reporting mechanism to come back to say, ‘This is what has been uncovered.’ ”

Jacinta Carroll, of the ANU’s National Security College, has been monitoring China’s response to the growing criticism and believes it is squandering the gains made through economic engagement. The virus is a reputational disaster for China, as well as a health and economic one, with ordinary citizens now experiencing the impact of its actions around the world.

“What coronavirus has done … is bring the hand of an authoritarian state and the way it will manipulate others to its own benefit, including its own people, right to the forefront,” Carroll says. “A good international player stands up and engages with that and says, ‘Yes, we want to find out, too.’ ”

Nick Kaldas says any inquiry would be more difficult if China refused access, but not impossible. “There are ways to do it,” he says. “But it’s far more complicated than being able to hit the ground and talk to people.”

Richard McGregor has no doubt China and Russia would both veto any Security Council inquiry resolution. “Given China’s history of expelling foreign aggressors, and the whole emphasis in China on independence and self-respect and sovereignty, it’s pretty hard to see anything genuine from the outside coming in,” he says. “And I don’t think you could do it unless you had access to all sorts of things that only the Chinese have access to.”

Without an investigation though, questions will remain about the virus’s early spread.

The transfer from animals to humans is generally believed to have occurred at a Wuhan wet market, with Australian Agriculture Minister David Littleproud this week calling for greater scrutiny of such wildlife wet markets.

Littleproud dismissed suggestions it was too soon to push for an international investigation into the spread of Covid-19. “We’re going to look at this in a calm, methodical way,” he told ABC Radio National, “but we want to start the conversation.”

But China is particularly sensitive to suggestions it mishandled the outbreak or may have been deliberately careless.

“It is not beyond the realm of conception that China has sought to capitalise on the terrible circumstances in Wuhan to pursue its perception of its national interests,” Blaxland says.

McGregor says conspiratorial suggestions go too far.

“I just think that’s crazy,” he says. “The idea that China would do this deliberately to weaken other countries and advance their plans for global domination – I mean that sounds like a comic book.”

He acknowledges the idea has its advocates, including some scholars, but he dismisses it.

“You know, we should focus on what’s real – in other words how China stuffed it up, rather than weaving elaborate conspiracy theories that simply don’t make any sense.”

Blaxland says China’s mishandling – which McGregor also acknowledges – should be discussed.

“What is China up to? It is extremely opaque,” Blaxland says. “It is demonstrably being very liberal with the truth and it is demonstrably seeking to manipulate the message domestically and abroad. Why should that be the case? These are pointers to actions that are hostile and that is what deeply worries me, and I know there are people out there who would happily shut me down for saying so. But this is a conversation we need to have, because it’s grave.”

On Thursday, Scott Morrison was asked if he had sought to have his own conversation with President Xi, and whether he thought calls for an inquiry would damage relations.

“No, I don’t,” he replied to the latter.

The first part of the question went unanswered.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2020 as "Not exactly China plates".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.