It is no coincidence that Beijing’s threats to put punitive tariffs on Australian barley and halt beef exports on fake technical grounds are happening before the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly starting next Monday.
These moves are Chinese Communist party shots across Australia’s political bow. The message, pure and simple, is that Canberra should not use the assembly meeting to press for a transparent and independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.
The assembly is the peak governing body of the World Health Organisation. Before the pandemic no one would have expected that this year’s virtual and shortened two-day meeting would be the most significant geopolitical summit of 2020.
There are four key elements to the call by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, for an investigation into the origins of the virus and all directly conflict with Beijing’s interests. First, Morrison wants an investigation to be open and transparent. Second, he says it must be independent, presumably free from political influence and able to produce advice to help strengthen protections against future pandemics.
Third, he wants arrangements in place to speed up WHO responses to crises. He says Australia decided to work on the basis that the virus would become a pandemic fully a fortnight before the WHO made that judgment. He told Sky News in late April that earlier advice “could have potentially saved thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of lives” globally.
Fourth, Morrison wants to ensure that the WHO is “not fettered in any way” – a delicate reference to an obvious problem, which is that the organisation’s handling of the crisis has been astonishingly and inappropriately attentive to Beijing’s political sensitivities.
The Communist party’s response to this suggests it has something to hide. Its refusal to allow foreign investigators into Wuhan, the halt on publishing research on the virus, the failure to hand over physical virus samples rather than genome sequences all show the party is tightly controlling access to information about the virus.
Australia is not the only country wanting to pursue an inquiry: the European Union has submitted a draft resolution to the WHA calling for an “independent evaluation … to review lessons learned” from the crisis. Morrison has also directly spoken to the leaders of France, Germany, Britain and the United States among others.
All countries turned inwards in their initial reaction to the crisis, but in the absence of the US providing global leadership on international responses we are seeing the arrival of a loose coalition of countries focused on shaping a more effective WHO that is not in thrall to China.
Aside from the obvious focus on the virus, these countries share the experience of dealing with a China that is sharpening its political rhetoric and is quick to resort to threats of economic retaliation if states do and say things that Beijing does not like. The Communist party’s response to calls for Taiwan to attend the assembly as an observer is a case in point.
Taiwan had previously attended the WHA between 2009 and 2016 as an observer but was excluded from the organisation after the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive party was elected in May 2016.
As Beijing hardens its position on what it considers to be acceptable applications of the One China policy it is reacting badly to international judgments that Taiwan very effectively suppressed the spread of Covid-19 without resorting to the punitive measures we saw in Wuhan.
This week China’s ambassador to New Zealand sharply rebuked Wellington for backing a growing international call to make Taiwan an observer at the WHA meeting. The foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said New Zealand should “immediately stop making wrong statements on Taiwan, to avoid damaging our bilateral relationship”.
China’s ever more strident and stringent demands for countries to publicly acquiesce to Beijing’s political agenda is seemingly having the opposite reaction.
It’s uncertain how these issues will play out next week at the WHA because China has presented itself as so inflexibly opposed to an open and independent review and to Taiwan’s observer membership that it is difficult to see what compromises might be developed. Equally Australia and others seem intent on pressing their points.
This could make for a fiery meeting. If the WHA is not capable of agreeing on a meaningful review into the origins and early management of the virus, it’s possible that a number of countries will establish an investigation, pooling intelligence resources and making the best assessments they can without direct access to Wuhan.
Would China unleash economic retaliation at this point? It would be a tough call for Beijing because banning Australian barley and beef would punish Chinese consumers. For its own stability, the party cannot risk too many unhappy citizens. On trade, Beijing’s bargaining position is not as strong as some assume.
Taiwan’s position is harder to reconcile, but one possible outcome is that countries will simply refuse to let Beijing go any further in predating the island’s autonomy.
In both cases these would amount to major political setbacks for Beijing, the largely self-imposed costs of the party’s hardline diplomatic brinksmanship.
• Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former deputy secretary for strategy with the defence department