Australia is a middle economic power in the Indo-Pacific, geographically distanced from Europe and the US. Regardless of its relatively small population and military, Australia has galvanised international attention and support regarding its recent call for an international inquiry into the coronavirus. In Australian colloquial terms, the nation is ‘punching above its weight’ to pursue their own interests through advancing global cooperation. Though Australia faces increasingly tense relations with China, this reality has not prevented Australian officials from taking a stand on the world stage to criticise Beijing for its management of the coronavirus. This week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged the international community to support an inquiry into the origins and transmission of COVID in addition to the WHO’s response.
China, fearing that such an investigation would harm its international reputation has responded to Australia’s suggestion for an independent investigation with threats of economic coercion. Chinese ambassador to Australia Jingye Cheng has threatened a freeze on tourists and students coming to Australia and a boycott on Australian beef and wine. While it would be easy for Australian officials to scale back their rhetoric in light of Beijing’s bullying tactics, Australia continues to remain vocal on the international stage, presenting a compelling case for the inquiry. At this early stage, Australia’s efforts appear to be successful in gaining international recognition with recent support pledged from the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
Australia is a regional power with global interests. Pursuing this inquiry is within our national interest as we seek to uphold international rules and norms of transparency and rule of law. An international community which respects these values and has international institutions which support integrity and facts over politics enables peace and prosperity to flourish among nations. The COVID inquiry will help to achieve this vision by seeking to uncover the truth amidst a sea of informational warfare. It will hold China accountable for their negligent handling of the coronavirus and set a clear standard for China’s future cooperation, forcing them and others to think twice before censoring critical health information and delaying international coordination. The inquiry will also uncover problems with the World Health Organisation’s response to this pandemic, a needed step to ensure the institution can develop clearer guidelines and international expectations for dealing with future international health risks.
Australia’s announcement to pursue the COVID inquiry follows in the footsteps of the successful Australian-led MH17 inquiry. In the aftermath of a transnational tragedy, Australia capitalised its seat on the UN security council by introducing resolution 2166, leading the international community’s response to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. The binding UN resolution called for a ‘full, thorough and independent investigation’ into the crash and demanded military actives in the area cease to enable site access. Through active and determined diplomacy, Australia put vital pressure on those who controlled the crash site to allow access for investigators and for the victims to be repatriated and returned to their loved ones. Australia’s leadership from the downing of MH17 to the coronavirus pandemic indicates a promising pattern of behaviour emerging within Australian Foreign Policy. Australia is filling a US leadership void and acting independently to help maintain regional peace and security.
Australia’s foreign policy is predominately focused on the Indo-Pacific region. Australia seeks to increase the stability, prosperity and health within Pacific nations and such objectives will likely be advanced due to a COVID inquiry into the WHO. The WHO works to advance public health infrastructure within the Pacific. It is for this reason that Australia has not followed the US to halt the organisation’s funding as this would unnecessarily hurt the people we seek to empower most through Australian aid. Advocating for an inquiry on the other hand provides a more nuanced policy approach. Australia can criticise the inadequacy of the WHO’s response, demanding a higher standard for future compliance, whilst continuing to support the organisation’s valuable work within the Pacific. An inquiry into the management of COVID will help to ensure that the future work of the WHO is more transparent and therefore more effective at managing future health risks through improving infrastructure and resilience among vulnerable states.
Furthermore, an inquiry provides an opportunity for Australia to differentiate itself from China as a partner of choice for future trade and development partnerships within the Pacific. Over the course of the past decade, China has increased its presence in the Pacific providing new opportunities for the Pacific to participate in the Belt in Road Initiative and accept concessional loans to grow their economies. Australia now faces exceptional competition with China, particularly in the area of development. By standing up to China and exposing their negligent management of this pandemic, Australia is presenting a strong case for why it should continue to be a partner of choice in the Pacific. Australia’s display of leadership has outlined its priorities for transparency and international cooperation while exposing the risks associated with participating in trade and accepting development from China.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on Australia’s ability to lead the international community and contribute to global stability and prosperity. As a regional power, it is within Australia’s interests to hold states accountable for their disruptive actions and to build international institutions that promote transparency and integrity. In a time of great pessimism and uncertainty, Australia’s recent leadership provides hope for an international system more committed to truth, transparency and cooperation.