A health and economic crisis with the added complication of international relations


The praise highlighted a flaw in his policies which he might not have intended. The controls imposed on Chinese-Australians were not replicated for Australians returning from Iran or Italy, the two main targets for travel restrictions after China. While the Chinese were locked down, Iranian- and Italian-Australians were only required to “self-isolate” for 14 days after arrival. This might help explain why the Chinese have had the lowest number of infections in Australia.

Data from the Department of Health shows that two-thirds of all confirmed cases so far were acquired overseas. The tables are presented by continent, without breakdowns for individual countries. But the bigger picture is pretty clear. More than twice as many cases in Australia originated in North Africa and the Middle East than in north-east Asia, which includes China. Both those numbers, in turn, represent only a tiny fraction of the cases from Europe, or the Americas, the coy term health officials deploy to signify the US. In short, about 2000 of the first 5000 cases in Australia came from the big three Petri dishes of Europe, the US and international cruise ships.

Our ally never made the banned list in her own right, even as the evidence mounted in early March that the Americans were tracking for catastrophe. The US was only swept up by default when Australia closed its borders to all foreign visitors on 20 March, six weeks after the initial ban on visitors from China. Even then, another week would pass before all Australians returning from overseas were placed under a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

It is not so much a double standard as an unavoidable diplomatic reality. Australia, like most western countries, continues to tap dance around the fragile ego of Donald Trump. The Morrison government would have known that treating the US on the basis of hard evidence, as a risk equivalent to China or Iran, would likely have enraged a president who thought the coronavirus was a media beat-up.

This is the unavoidable dilemma of the coronavirus for Australia: it is a health and economic crisis with the added complication of international relations.

Nothing about the Chinese or American responses so far should inspire confidence in our dealings with either country in the future. China’s culpability is established for all the world to see. So too is American incompetence. The coronavirus got its head start on humanity because of the inexcusable delays in China’s response to the initial outbreak in Wuhan, the country’s ninth-largest city. The virus was already in Iran and Europe when Beijing admitted its deadly mistake.

Trump arguably took longer than Beijing to accept reality. The virus, which he said was just “one person coming in from China”, which would magically disappear, is now, on the analysis he released this week, projected to kill more than 200,000 Americans.

Beijing and Washington have been sniping since the crisis began in January. Great power rivalry and pettiness have mixed in equal measure.

Writing in Time magazine this week, foreign affairs editor Ian Bremmer said relations between the two superpowers had reached their lowest point since the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. “Both countries have suffered large-scale loss of life and a sharp economic slowdown, but political officials in both countries are working to protect their own domestic standing by blaming the other’s government. Trump has taken to calling COVID-19 the ‘Chinese virus’, while senior Chinese officials and state media have pushed a ludicrous theory that the US created the virus and planted it in China last fall.”

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It is fast becoming the most shocking thing about this crisis. These two behemoths, commanding almost 40 per cent of the world’s economic output between them, passed up the opportunity to co-operate. Instead, they chose to continue a form of global politics as usual, placing countries like Australia in pincer of their mutual insecurity.

COVID-19 is reversing all the rules of domestic and international governance. At home the pro-market ideologies of the past 40 years have been buried in a matter of days. But nativism continues to drive relations between nations.

The Coalition government has accepted the need for not just record levels of stimulus, but an historic investment in Australia’s social safety net. Morrison, reluctant at first, is now an unashamed interventionist. He is responsible for a doubling of the dole, a six-month wage guarantee for workers and sole traders, and free childcare. The word is overused in this crisis, but there is no precedent for either the scale, or the speed of these decisions. The two-man government Gough Whitlam ran with Lance Barnard immediately after the 1972 election, once regarded as the benchmark for radical change, now looks like box-ticking exercise because it implemented the easiest parts of Labor’s program which required no spending. Morrison had his socialist mandate rewritten for him by the pressing needs of the crisis. Other countries, even the US, have already gone down the same path.

But the urge for collective action at home is more than offset by the global blame game.

Beijing no doubt senses an opportunity to reshape the world in its image while Washington is consumed by the pandemic. It is a brazen, but understandable move. Trump had already ceded America’s global leadership role by choice, before the crisis began. The Chinese are taking the opportunity to fill the soft power void.

With the outbreak more or less contained in China, Beijing is sharing medical experience and equipment with the rest of the world. Even as the two sides bicker, planeloads of supplies from China are gratefully received by the US.

President Xi Jinping visits the Ningbo-Zhoushan Port in eastern China. Both the government and central bank are moving furiously to refloat the economy.Credit:AP

But predictions of American demise, and Chinese supremacy may be premature. The other dimension of this crisis is the question of trust. While leaders at a national level may be restoring it with the revival of big government, the pandemic has accelerated global distrust in the two men who are competing to rule the world.

Last year’s Lowy Institute Poll found trust in China and the US was already at very low levels. “Only 30 per cent of Australians have confidence in China’s President Xi Jinping to do the right thing in world affairs, a 13-point drop since 2018. One-quarter of Australians (25 per cent) have confidence in US President Donald Trump, a five-point drop from 2018,” the poll found.

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Pew Research found the same thing in their latest global poll, released in January this year, before the coronavirus struck. It asked the identical question as Lowy, but across 32 countries. Attitudes to five leaders were tested: Trump, Xi, Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It will annoyed the US and Chinese presidents that they both ranked behind Putin. Almost half of those surveyed (46 per cent) had confidence in Merkel, 41 per cent had confidence in Macron, 33 per cent in Putin, 29 per cent in Trump and 28 per cent in Xi.

For Australia, the promise of a benign 21st century, in which healthy competition between China and the US guaranteed both our prosperity and security, probably ended before the pandemic. The line can be drawn at the global financial crisis in 2008-9. Before then, Washington was prepared to accommodate Beijing’s rise in the joint interest of commerce. After it, the Chinese began pressing more confidentially for advantage. The turning point was the construction and then militarisation of islands in the South China Sea in 2013. As the Lowy Institute’s Richard McGregor chronicled in his book Xi Jinping: The Backlash published last year, countries like the US, Australia, Germany and Singapore, “have all tried to push back [in] their own way”.

There is delicate balance to be struck once the pandemic passes, between re-engagement and a new form of Australian aloofness. The world can’t be the same as it was, because nations will practice a form of self-isolation for a number of years to come. They will want to avoid both reinfection and the loss of sovereignty through dependency on others for basic supplies. This will reduce both the flow of people and goods around the world.

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This might inoculate Australia from Chinese overreach, and further American retreat, because we will be forced to make our own luck. The question we have been dreading for the best part of the 21st century – to choose between the US and China – might answer itself for the time being with none of the above.

There will be a price to pay, whether we know it or not. China’s short-term interests will be to reclaim as many of its citizens from Australia as possible for its reconstruction. Our universities, which have been our third-largest export earner after coal and iron ore, will be the first to feel the loss. In time, the exchange of minerals and migrants might work to our advantage again. But we will need to look beyond China for the next wave. Australia will not only see the world differently once this pandemic passes, it will look differently as ours migration program pivots away from China.

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