COVID 19: Australia’s Anti-China Rhetoric Risks its Economic Recovery

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May 15, 2020

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By M Adil Khan

Mr. Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister of Australia ought to be applauded for his remarkable leadership for mobilisation of best scientific advice and for pursuing coherent federal/state policies and enlisting trust and cooperation of ordinary Australians, in tackling the COVID 19 crisis so successfully – spread of the deadly virus in most parts of the country has almost come to a halt. Government is slowly lifting containment restrictions and bringing the country to some sort of normalcy, mainly the social side of it.

However, as we all know that the pandemic’s economic fallouts – results of shutdowns and social distancing and postponement of international trade – have been staggering. According to the latest estimate job and business losses have been costing Australia’s economy approximately AUD 4.0 billion a week and 8 per cent of adult Australians, more than 1.6 million people are out of work and counting.[1]

Getting the economy back on track, a daunting task, is Australia’s immediate priority and to get the economy back to its pre-COVID level or at least to a reasonable level, re-opening of exports to pre-COVID major markets is a must. This means kick-starting Australia’s trade with its largest international trading partner, China – exports to China that reached $123.3 billion in 2019, constitute approximately 30% of all Australia’s exports[2].

In the context of the above it is only normal that Australia re-connects and revives its trade with China the soonest. On the contrary, first announced by Australia’s Home Minister Mr. Peter Dutton and later backed by Mr. Morrison, Australia’s Prime Minister their recent out-of-the blue demand for an international COVID 19 probe against China, Australia’s largest trading partner has come as a big surprise and shocked many[3].

Indeed, at a time when the whole world is still convulsing and looking for global cooperation to address multiple challenges the pandemic has thrust upon every country including Australia, experts are somewhat puzzled by Australia’s sudden China phobic adrenal outburst.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres who fully understands the gravity of the situation and appreciates the importance of global unity against the pandemic, suggests, “To prevail against the pandemic today, we will need heightened solidarity’’ and at the same time, he also expressed his concern that instead of cooperation there is now a “tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering” and thus appealed for an all-out effort “to end hate speech globally.”[4]

Furthermore, Morrison government’s reference to “weapons inspectors” type investigation for the proposed China probe has also raised eyebrows about the real motive behind the proposed probe for it brought back bad memories from the past where findings of weapon inspectors that ran contrary to the expectations of its sponsors, were responded with unilateral bombings of the accused, without the international mandate.

Having said all these, it is also undeniable that the pandemic has indeed raised many questions that beget answering. For example, it is important to know where the virus originated, how did it originate, whether all parties played their due roles in alerting each other to help averting its spread and what made some countries do better than others in stemming the scourge etc. etc. Indeed, lessons that we would learn from the proposed study would greatly help us to prepare ourselves for better management of similar crisis in future.

But at a time when the pandemic is still raging, this may not be the most appropriate time to go for a probe nor engage in blame game.

World needs to focus on the pandemic and beat the disease and pull economies up first, together and should a study be done, it should be done as a global study and not focused on any country and/or agency and be of scientific nature and furthermore, must be done with the mandate and under the supervision of the UN General Assembly, the world body[5].

So, why Mr. Morrison decided to single out China and demand a probe at this juncture when the pandemic is still raging, and his China dependent economy is in a dire strait?

Australia has a long history of operating as hegemonic America’s “deputy sheriff” in the region.[6] Since WAR II and from Vietnam War to the so-called “War on terror” Australia has been an enthusiastic partner in America’s wars though and thanks to the efforts of some of Australia’s Labor Party Prime Ministers who took initiatives to balance the position and aggressively integrated Australia with Asia mainly economically and especially through strengthening trade ties with China, made a noble effort to reposition the country in a more balanced manner and these balancing acts greatly helped Australia’s economy to leap forward.

Goings have been good until US began to see China as a challenge to its monopoly in economic and military power in the world and looked to Australia for support to confront, which Morrison government readily provided. Therefore, there is every reason to believe that Morrison government’s demand for China probe that has come on the heels of Mr. Trump’s similar accusations that the virus is man-made and originated at a Lab in Wuhan, China, a claim which WHO has dismissed as “insane” has little or nothing to do with solving COVID 19’s epidemiological conundrum but to push, on behalf of US a geopolitical agenda in the region.

In fact, Mr. Trump’s own experts have also contradicted him[7] and China in turn has rejected these allegations as, “bare-faced lies.”[8]

In the meantime, China has also responded to Australia probe appeal by saying, “Australian lawmakers were acting as the mouthpiece of Trump”[9] and furthermore, China has extended its anger by threatening to stop importing Australia’s barley which is worth AUD 1.5 billion annually and this would sink hundreds of farmers who depend on China market for their survival.[10]

If geopolitics is the motivation and there are indications that this indeed is the case, it is obvious that Mr. Morrison and his government is somewhat short-sighted.

Signs are that once the pandemic is over, every country, big and small, rich and poor would emerge weaker, just that some countries would be less weak than others and furthermore, that some would do better than others, in recovery – both in health as well as in economy.

Therefore, in this ensuing trajectory of changes one thing is certain which is that world order would shift both politically as well as economically and the economic order which has been shifting already even before the pandemic would shift even more in the post COVID 19 days and in the process, present post War II hegemonic order led by US which is basically made up of a bunch of bullies, manipulators of bullies, lapdogs of bullies and the bullied, would also shift.

The likely scenario is that current heavy weights of the world would be weakened, institutionalised inequities would loosen and there would be new kids in the block where current equilibrium of unequal world order would mutate to something less domineering and more balanced.[11]

Australia needs to be aware of these ensuing alterations and adjust its foreign relations accordingly to ensure that its policy fundamentals – both domestic and international, political and economic – are right, for failure to do so would translate into what Confucius once said, “if your fundamentals are not right, you are like a blind person, would not know where to put your hands and feet on.”

In case security is Australia’s main concern then what it needs to do is get over the post War II cold war mindset and stop treating the region as its enemy and seeking its security from outside. Instead, Australia should seek its security not from but within the region and in order to do this it must shun the idea of seeing itself as the “deputy sheriff” of a power which is in decline.

It would be sad to see Australia, a country that has so successfully abated the spread of COVID 19 and managed the health aspects of the crisis so effectively, throw away its economic recovery opportunities by leaning to a world order which is on a death row.

Australia needs to wake up to the real world and get its policy fundamentals, both domestic and international especially the latter, right to ensure that its mission of economic recovery also experiences similar success as that of its health.

Author is Professor of Development Practice, University of Queensland, Australia and former senior policy manager of the UN





[5] In fact, China has always given agreed to “cooperate” with such global study of scientic nature and not as “accused”:

[6] The “deputy sheriff” phrase was first coined in 1999 by the then Australian Prime Mr Howard to express his government’s desire to pursue military role, if needed, in US hegemonic project in Asia Pacific.





[11] Deep in crisis, economically badly wounded and trenched, is this the best time to throw stones at your most important trading partner?

M. Adil Khan is a former UN senior policy manager and currently, an Honourary Professor, School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia

10 May 2020