US–China rivalry must not derail international inquiry into Covid-19

It’s time to take the global debate about the pandemic out of the hands of Beijing and Washington and reclaim it for the 6.08 billion people who do not live in China or the US. Distorting a global pandemic into a matter of bilateral competition is distracting and deeply wrong.

ASPI’s Rod Lyon wrote about nations’ strategic personalities a year ago, quoting a diagnosis of the US as extroverted, intuitive and feeling and China as introverted, sensing and thinking. The pandemic has given us a further level of understanding—both powers are narcissists, but in different ways. That’s particularly troublesome right now, as the world copes with Covid-19.

You’d think it would be a simple piece of common ground for all 7.8 billion people on the planet to want to know how the pandemic started and what was done and not done so we can learn from this to prevent and respond to future crises.

What might be common ground among individuals, however, is deeply contested between governments, with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime and the US government led by President Donald Trump in open conflict over the issue.

This isn’t an issue in which relativity and ‘equally valid’ perspectives have much of a place. Empirically, the World Health Organization timeline states that the pandemic began in Wuhan, although we don’t know exactly where in Wuhan or how it started.

We know, though, that clouding otherwise simple factual issues is in the interests of those who fear accountability and criticism from their own people and from other countries that have been terribly affected the disease.

So, the Chinese state has engaged in a concerted and expanding disinformation campaign to blur history and promote alternative realities that weave fictions around the pandemic and its origins. That the disease had first appeared at international military games in Wuhan last year is one such fiction touted by senior Chinese officials.

At the same time, the US government is intensifying its rhetoric about how the virus emerged, adding to the noise and heat.

Washington’s claim that the virus may have come from a Wuhan lab is a gift to the Chinese government. It enables China’s leaders to pretend that everyone who wants an inquiry into the pandemic’s origins and its early handling is following the US, even when they know that isn’t true.

Covid-19 is not a facet of China–US strategic competition. It’s a global phenomenon that goes far beyond the narrow confines of great-power rivalry.

Clearly, Beijing and Washington are trying to use Covid-19 against each other in their deepening conflict and competition. Beijing is desperate to stop the world from remembering that any chance of containing the virus in Wuhan was lost early on through the behaviour of Chinese agencies and leaders.

And Trump, aside from perhaps seeing the pandemic as another compelling reason to reduce America’s technological entanglement with China, has found an issue that plays very well to his base, including as a way of minimising his own accountability for the economic and health crises resulting from the pandemic.

But letting either Beijing or Washington distract us into seeing the pandemic as an element of their bilateral arm wrestling would be a fundamental error. An international inquiry as called for by Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison and supported by numerous other world leaders is absolutely necessary. It must gather evidence and data and draw on the advice and analysis of a broad range of international experts.

That expertise must go beyond core epidemiological and medical knowledge to help us understand the interactions between medical and government personnel in Wuhan, up through the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy to Xi himself. It will also need to take account of the interaction between the WHO and Chinese authorities, and other governments.

The international inquiry must help us understand any sins of omission and commission, as well as the doubts and human errors that almost certainly arose during the virus’s initial emergence and outbreak.

Plenty of commentators are leaping on the bandwagon to discuss how Covid-19 is a key element of US–China competition, and even more are telling the world that an inquiry just can’t happen because the Chinese government opposes it. Both groups are leading us down the garden path—the first by characterising the pandemic as a bilateral issue and the second by telling us that what’s possible simply isn’t.

In the information-rich world we live in, it’s hard to hide much. There’s an enormous trove of data and information about the characteristics of the virus itself and its transmission in Wuhan and across the globe. The deep level of international cooperation we’re seeing in scientific and medical research makes this data richer and more powerful.

A considerable amount of open-source information is available on the actions and directions of Chinese officials and leaders since December that could be viewed alongside data and statements made by WHO officials and leaders. Taken together, there seems already to be sufficient evidence to allow a credible body of international experts to conduct a substantive inquiry.

The joint work of the Dutch, Malaysian, Belgian, Australian and Ukrainian governments to conduct a criminal investigation into the downing of MH17 provides a precedent. A proper inquiry still occurred despite the resistance of a party at the centre of it—in this case, Russia.

The governments formed a joint investigation team that conducted painstaking data-gathering, analysis and forensic investigation work. Their efforts allowed the events leading up to the Malaysia Airlines jet being shot down over Ukraine to be clearly established, and those who planned and perpetrated the murders to be identified and charged.

There’s much more data available on the pandemic and its beginnings than there was for the MH17 disaster.

The joint investigation team carried on with its work in the face of active obstruction and opposition from the Russian government and the Russian-backed Ukrainian rebels at the centre of events. The probe took place in the middle of a Russian disinformation campaign that has parallels with what we’re seeing out of Beijing now.

Let’s take an inquiry into Covid-19 out of the hands of two narcissistic great-power rivals and put it in the hands of a group of nations which, as happened with MH17, have the will and expertise to get to the bottom of what happened. That’s the best way to make us all safer in a world in which humans need to live with dangerous diseases that can only be contained only through international cooperation.