China and Australia face off in irate and icy pandemic diplomacy
4 May 2020|

A new layer of snow has settled atop the iciness of Australia’s relations with China.

Beijing and Canberra bite and bicker over Covid-19. The words are hot but they speak of frigid relations.

The diplomatic dance is performed as a melee.

Australia launched the latest spat by calling for an independent international inquiry on the origins and development of the pandemic.

On 19 April, Marise Payne said Australia will ‘absolutely insist’ on the review and China must show ‘transparency’. The foreign minister said the international inquiry would be similar to past reviews into ‘egregious human rights issues’.

When I saw that interview—especially the ‘egregious’ comparison—my reaction was, ‘Wow, go to battle stations.’ Payne is a deliberate player with a safe pair of hands, more a low-key than high-note performer. From her, that was a head-kicking message: the government had decided to go in hard.

The kick-back arrived quickly.

China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, told the Australian Financial Review that Australia was ‘politically motivated’ and was joining the US in ‘resorting to suspicion, recrimination or division’.

Journalist Andrew Tillett dangled this question: ‘But if Australia continues to do it, would China stop buying our iron ore and coal and gas and look elsewhere for it?’

Cheng said Australia’s idea wouldn’t ‘make any substantial progress’ but the Chinese public was ‘frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what you are doing’. Chinese parents mightn’t want their children to study in a ‘hostile’ country, he said, and people could stop drinking Australian wine or eating Australian beef.

The AFR’s headline was made: ‘China consumer backlash looms over Morrison’s coronavirus probe’.

China’s threat of a trade squeeze turned the melee into a rumble. The secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson, phoned the ambassador. The embassy then ‘verballed’ Adamson with this version of the conversation:

Secretary Adamson tried her best to defend Australia’s proposal about the independent review, saying the proposal neither has political motive nor targets China. She also admitted it is not the time to commence the review now and Australia has no details of the proposal. She further said that Australia does not want the matter to have any impact on Australia–China relationship.

Canberra cried diplomatic foul and trade blackmail. Beijing bloviated about Australia as ‘gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe’.

See it all as another cold front in a freeze that’s into its fourth year. In this week in 2018, I was columnising about the new Oz–China icy age blowing through Australia’s security, economic, trade, social, diplomatic and political worlds.

On my count, we’re in the fifth such icy age between Australia and the People’s Republic of China, although well short of the depth of the first age between 1949 and 1972 when Australia refused to give diplomatic recognition to the PRC.

The chill winds of this fifth age gathered in 2017 when Australia’s language became shriller, offering a ‘dark view’ of a ‘coercive China’ seeking regional domination. Pointing to Chinese interference in domestic affairs, Australia announced legislation to ban foreign political donations and broaden the definition of espionage.

It’s been more snow than sunshine ever since.

The public stoush merely reveals how things have been behind the diplomatic screen. The Chinese leadership doesn’t bother talking to Australia.

President Xi Jinping hit the phones to talk to the leaders of 29 nations and international organisations about the pandemic last month. Prime Minister Scott Morrison didn’t get a call. As Karen Middleton comments: ‘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 has become accustomed to higher pain levels. The diplomatic cost–benefit equation has shifted. An angry China—what’s new? And so Canberra takes aim at Beijing as it calls for the equivalent of international weapons inspectors to investigate disease outbreaks.

Plucky Oz speaking blunt truth. Or silly Oz, the nail that sticks up its head to be hammered. Or Oz standing way too close to US President Donald Trump. Take your pick.

John McCarthy, who served as Australia’s ambassador to seven countries, calls it a hoary domestic political bellow, but a policy mistake: ‘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.’

Former foreign minister Julie Bishop gave her old colleagues some classic diplomatic advice, saying that the rhetoric should be dialled down and that more ‘calm and quiet diplomacy’ was needed.

Beyond the latest bout of frostiness, the real test for Australia will be getting international agreement for a pandemic inquiry.

Morrison has laid out what he calls an obvious case:

This is a virus that has taken more than 200,000 lives across the world. It has shut down the global economy. The implications and impacts of this are extraordinary. Now, it would seem entirely reasonable and sensible that the world would want to have an independent assessment of how this all occurred, so we can learn the lessons and prevent it from happening again.

In diplomacy, the reasonable and the sensible don’t always win. Australia has proclaimed the target. Now it must do the complex diplomatic work to get international agreement on the task and how it should be done.

Morrison last year warned against ‘negative globalism’ and ‘an unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy’ with the injunction that globalism ‘must facilitate, align and engage, rather than direct and centralise’. DFAT has nearly completed the ‘comprehensive audit of global institutions and rule-making processes’ ordered last October by the prime minister.

Australia is about to test how well it can navigate those global institutions and do diplomacy to facilitate, align and engage. Expect China to fight every step of the way.

And if Australia stands up for Taiwan to have its rightful place in the World Health Organization …