How Australia should approach China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang

Australia has traditionally held the conventional wisdom that as China grew economically, it would establish a middle class that would pressure the government to recognise human rights. Under the presidency of Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has instead shown that economic growth can reinforce a dictatorship. 

The religious and ethnic persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province is of growing concern to the Australian government. The United Nations estimates that at least one million Turkic Muslims are being detained in internment camps and forced to undergo ideological re-education. Uyghurs are currently working within factories of well-known multinational companies such as Apple, BMW, Volkswagen and Nike in conditions which strongly suggest forced labour.

Amnesty International alongside members of the international community have criticised the CCP over its treatment of the Uyghur people. President Xi, has been unmoved by this mounting  pressure, recently remarking that the Chinese approach to its internal affairs was “completely correct” and remained a “major task for the entire party and nation.”

Amnesty recognises that Australia is deeply committed to human rights. Australia recently passed its Modern Slavery Act (2019) to combat violations of human freedom in global supply chains. Australia has also utilised its status as a constructive middle power to promote human rights through forums such as the UN Human Rights Council (2018-2020) and the ‘Liechtenstein initiative.’

Australia’s current approach towards China’s abuses prioritises soft diplomacy and is premised in the belief that China will eventually progress to respect the human rights of its citizens. Amnesty stresses that this approach of quiet diplomacy has proven to be ineffective. Therefore, Australia must immediately reform its foreign policy approach towards the CCP. If left unchecked, the threat posed by China’s human rights violations undermines Australia’s  objectives to promote human rights and makes a mockery of the international human rights framework. 

Recommendations: 

1.  Australia should implement a preferential refugee program to provide Uighur Muslims with priority protection and resettlement in Australia; 

2. Australia should follow the United States in screening and banning certain exports believed to have been produced by forced Uyghur labour;

3. Australian state visits to China should be conditioned on human rights progress and the granting of access for UN investigators to independently assess conditions in Xinjiang. 

Human Rights Council

Action on China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims presents a unique opportunity for Australia to demonstrate international leadership through human rights advocacy. China has continued to manipulate the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) by proposing resolutions which undermine the international system. In 2018, China proposed a UNHRC resolution calling on states to ‘promote mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights.’ The resolution implied that human rights could be negotiated and that economic development should take precedence over individual human rights. This stance weakens the international human rights framework by normalising the idea that human rights are voluntary.

While Australia and other countries have leveraged international forums to criticise the CCP’s human rights abuses, such motions have been completely ignored by China. In 2019, Australia partnered with 21 other UNHCR countries in writing a letter to the CCP calling for an end to the mass detention of Uyghur Muslims. China retaliated by suspending its human rights partnership with Australia.

2020 marks Australia’s final year on the UNHRC. Though Australia’s lobbying has not resulted in a marked improvement to human rights in China, Australia must take advantage of its final months on the Council. Australia could draw attention to its human rights initiatives on the Council by establishing a preferential refugee program to provide Uyghurs with priority protection in Australia. This would enable Uyghurs willing and able to escape from persecution to rebuild their lives. It is currently estimated that there 12 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang. While Australia is unable to facilitate what will likely be a mass influx of people, Australia could commit to a refugee quota and encourage its partners to help shoulder the burden. Though this policy will not address the root causes of the human rights abuses in China, it will send a clear message to the CCP that its behaviour is unacceptable, while providing safety and security to survivors. 

International Leadership

Australia has an opportunity to enhance its status as a regional and world leader in human rights by renouncing China’s abuses. While Foreign Affairs Minister Payne has previously criticised China for its repressive policies against the Uyghurs, Australia can and must do more.  

State visits are a foundation of international diplomacy, and the CCP utilises photos opportunities  from foreign visits to fuel propaganda. In November 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron visited China and made no public mention of human rights concerns. Quiet diplomacy is ineffective in pressuring the Chinese government to modify its behaviour. Most importantly, such visits are disheartening to Chinese citizens, the ultimate agents of change. Australia can set a better diplomatic example by refusing to coordinate state visits to China so long as conditions remain unchanged. The Australian government can also utilise its normative influence to encourage allies to do the same. By publicly calling out Beijing for its human rights violations, this will send a clear message to the CCP while emboldening victims to enact change. 

Australia is also reticent of China’s growing influence in the Indo Pacific region. In response, DFAT is interested in identifying new ways to promote Australia as a partner of choice for development and trade in the region. Promoting a compelling, human-rights respecting alternative to China will enable Australia to differentiate itself from the CCP and gain greater support from its regional partners. 

Trade Considerations 

China and Australia have a strong bilateral trade relationship which should be a key consideration when taking any political action against China. China is Australia’s largest trading partner for both imports and exports, currently accounting for 27.4% of Australia’s total world trade.  Noting that China is such a significant trading partner, Australia finds it challenging to implement trade sanctions as this may disrupt the country’s economic prosperity. 

Trade has been used by the United States government as an important lever to sanction Chinese imports from Xinjiang. The U.S. now screens products that have originated from Xinjiang to detect goods which are potentially linked to state-sponsored forced labour. In September 2020, the U.S. implemented an executive order blocking Chinese imports such as cotton, garments, hair products and electronics from the region. Amnesty International recommends Australia explore a similar policy of screening imports in order to deter modern slavery.

So far, Australia has been unwilling to take action against China’s repression. This was evident in 2019, when Foreign Minister Payne described China’s treatment of Uyghurs as ‘disturbing,’ but simultaneously refused to implement sanctions against China. Australia’s inability to turn rhetoric into action against China demonstrates a complacency that goes against Australia’s interests and values. 

Adopting a tough stance on the CCP poses significant risks to Australian trade. However, if Australia can cooperate with other countries to address China’s blatant disregard for human rights, the international balance of power will shift. Though China can endure unilateral sanctions from Australia, its economy cannot take on the entire world.

Conclusion

Adopting these recommendations will enable Australia to promote its international leadership on human rights and build credibility within the Indo-Pacific region. Though unilateral actions by Australia will not enact instant change in China’s behavior, its example will encourage others to follow suit. This will heighten the financial and political costs of China’s oppression. Amnesty International hopes that this pressure will eventually result in an end to China’s systemic religious and ethnic abuse of Uyghur Muslims. 


The Wolf Warriors of China are not diplomatic, who are they fooling?

China’s approach to diplomacy has adopted a brand new modus operandi. It is diametrically opposed to almost all diplomatic niceties once pursued and fostered by Chinese diplomats in their dealings with the world. Today, Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Xining’s insists that Chinese diplomats show a “fighting spirit” and become a vicious pack of wolf warriors. Despite such blatant behaviour on the international stage, the CCP continues to defend their actions arguing that they are diplomatic and noble. Is this hypocrisy really fooling anyone?

In recent months Australia has been the recipient of insults and threats from China, we are not alone in such attacks. From North America to Europe, to Asia and Africa, the Chinese wolf warriors have set fire to the goodwill that had been built up over two decades of so-called smile diplomacy.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister of China, Wang Xining gave a speech at the Australian National Press Club in Canberra. His remarks underscored the importance that China attaches to mutual respect, goodwill, fairness and a grand vision for the China-Australia bilateral. All seemingly diplomatic aspirations. However, a glance at the CCP’s recent international behaviour reveals the utter insincerity of these remarks.

Consider the virtue of mutual respect, which Wang described as following basic norms of sovereignty and non-interference in international affairs. When the Turnbull government passed legislation to restrict the activities of China from interfering in and covertly influencing Australian democratic institutions, Beijing responded with rage. 

Wang’s claim of Chinese goodwill which he characterised as the need to resolve differences in an amicable manner also fails to accurately capture China’s recent behaviour. China ruthlessly imposed economic restrictions on Australian barley exports in response to the Morrison government’s call for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, a virus which has killed hundreds of thousands worldwide and has reeked economic and social destruction.

Regarding the principle of fairness, Wang placed that virtue in the context of a non-discriminatory investment and trade environment. Yet, China has made it blatantly clear that is seeks more than merely win-win trading relationships with other countries. China has the most restrictive trading rules of all major world economies and has a history of intellectual property theft and forced transfers.

Last, the aspiration that our two countries evolve from economic partners towards agreeing on a ‘grand vision’ to enhance stability and prosperity in the Pacific region. While this sounds promising in a speech, the values of China and Australia are in conflict. China’s grand strategy seeks to shape the Pacific in a hierarchical and Sino-centric manner where the rights and privileges afforded to China are different to privileges of smaller countries.

Initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Made in China 2025 and concessional loaning to Pacific developing states enable China to weaken America’s alliances in the region and in its place create regional dependence on China. In the long term, this will enable China to dictate prices, policy and discourse when interacting with its economic partners. China’s “shared vision” is one in which Australia and others play a deferential role to China.

Australia and the world are less concerned with what Beijing says and more with what it is doing. For this reason, the Morrison government has moved to use external affairs powers available under the Constitution to outlaw independent state initiatives with China (and other countries) deemed to violate Australia’s national interest.

Most notably, Victoria’s previous commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative will not be permitted to go ahead. This is a critical step that will significantly diminish China’s political influence in Australia and will also ensure that Australia can speak with one voice in managing what will continue to be a problematic relationship with the CCP. 

Judging from China’s previous form, the CCP’s response to Australia’s new legislation will blatantly violate China’s stated virtues of mutual respect, goodwill and fairness.


ABC


Chinese diplomat Wang Xining’s National Press Club address

A Model Partnership

When two Australian Ministers travel to the US at such an uncertain and volatile time in history, it says something about the strength and significance of the relationship between the United States and Australia.

This week, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds traveled to Washington D.C for the Australia-US Ministerial Consultations. AUSMIN provides a principal bilateral forum to discuss approaches on major global and regional political issues and cooperate on foreign security and defence. Notably, Marise and Linda are the first members of the Australian executive to travel overseas since Australia borders closed in March.

While other American allies have declined the Trump administration’s request to resume in-person meetings, suggesting instead to delay appointments or hold conferences virtually, the effort made by Payne and Reynolds to attend AUSMIN in Washington D.C demonstrates the level of priority that the Australian government places on the bilateral relationship.

A hallmark of the Trump Administration has been the trade war against Beijing. Trump has clashed with Beijing over numerous issues including Huawei, unfair trading practices and China’s cyber warfare. COVID-19, has only agitated tensions further with the US strongly criticising China for its mismanagement of the pandemic which has taken the lives of 150,000 Americans to date, destroyed the US economy and severely harmed Trump’s re-election prospects. Throughout this time, members of the Trump Administration such as Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo have rallied for their partners to take a unified stand with them against China.

Australia, a small population in the Indo-Pacific region of the world has managed to live up to this call by confronting the challenge of an increasingly belligerent China. Australia was the first among the international community to call for an inquiry into the mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, a move that deeply angered and offended China. Despite relentless economic threats and bullying from Beijing, the Australian government also declared that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea were illegal. Further, in response to China’s new security laws in Hong Kong which seek to undermine the human rights protections of Hong Kong citizens, Australia suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and offered citizenship to dissidents.

Australia has shown that when it counts, it is not afraid to stand up for its values and choose a side. For decades, politicians, diplomats and scholars have stressed the difficult decision Australia will be forced to make due to its strong trade with China and military alliance with the United States as tensions between the countries reach an inevitable boiling point. While it is early days, it appears the choice has not been as difficult as some presumed. Australia has chosen to uphold its values and stand by its closest ally, despite the obvious risk of economic reprisal.

The AUSMIN meeting between the respective foreign and defence ministers – Mike Pompeo, Mark Esper, Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds went beyond the usual formalities as both countries are deeply engaged and committed to the challenge presented by China. The US acknowledged Australia’s bravery in standing up to China’s threats and utilised the opportunity to model the AUS-US alliance, juxtaposing Australia’s support with the tepid support it has received from some of its other allies.

A commitment to stick closest when times are tough is the true test of any relationship. This year, Australia and America have continuously proven that the relationship is far more than mateship or an obligatory tradition, it is a world-class model of an alliance which is above personalities and greater than the challenges of the day.

Does American National Identity still exist in 2020?

Watching the state of affairs in the US over the past few months has left many of us in a state of paralysis. Our hearts have bled for the millions of American lives lost to COVID. The violent imagery of George Floyd’s last breath and subsequent violent riots and protests have poured across our screens. From an Australian perspective, it seems America has never been more politically and socially divided. One might argue that Americans have lost the connective national tissue which once bound them together.

In spite of the recent social and political upheaval we are observing within the United States, it is important to keep in mind that socio-cultural movements are nothing new for the American people. A glance at US history depicts numerous movements which have fought to uphold and actualise the rights of minorities. I argue that the social movements bubbling within America today such as Black Lives Matter do not undermine the notion of an American identity, rather they demonstrate the attempt of modern Americans to live up to the founding values of their nation. In this way, movements of social change can help the United States move closer towards actualising the hopes and dreams that the American founding fathers had for a new nation.

American national identity is built upon the unique and radical founding of the United States.   Unlike nations whose identity is based on shared ethnicity and ancestry, America was formed on the idea of “the essential dignity of the individual human being, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom and justice.” Though at the time of America’s founding, these admirable ideals were not realised for most citizens, American history has steadily embraced and began to live up to the freedoms expressed in seminal founding texts such as the Declaration of Independence and U.S Constitution. Leader’s such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind as men who enabled America to live up to their founding commitments by abolishing slavery and segregation. While America has never been perfectly aligned with its founding values, what appears to bind Americans together is a dedication to see the United States lives up to its founding values.

The idea of American identity is under constant pressure to change by those who experience barriers when attempting to access freedom and equality in the United States. Racism is one of these barriers that is deeply rooted within American history. The United States will always contend with the harsh reality that while European colonists could claim an American identity, people trafficked as slaves from Africa were not entitled to the same privileges. The practice of slavery continued in the United States until 1865 with the introduction of the 13th Amendment.  Following this, black Americans endured an entire century of racial persecution and discrimination before the promises of the Civil War were realised. While America’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution proclaimed universal liberty, such documents coexisted alongside the exploitation and exclusion of black Americans. Despite an increasingly diverse US population and racial progress [evidenced through achievements such as the election of Barak Obama, the first African American president], some Americans argue that there is an entrenched racial component to American identity that divides whites and non-whites. 

Building upon historic injustices against African Americans, The Black Lives Matter movement has emerged in response to controversial law enforcement policies and police brutality against members of the African American community. At the core of this issue is the social concern that African Americans are not afforded the same societal protection as other Americans. Black Lives Matter demonstrates a powerful message: African Americans, like all Americans, long for freedom, equality of opportunity and access to the American Dream. Historic and contemporary racism in the United States have prevented African Americans from accessing this promise. American citizens responsible for discriminating and continuing to exclude African Americans from the benefits of American identity are contradicting the very values which underpin American identity. In this way, the plight of members of the African American community throughout history expresses a pattern: the continuous attempt to reconcile society with the country’s founding values.

Social change in the United States has improved the freedoms of its people, reconciling the US with its founding principles and helping to evoke the true sense of what it means to be American.



Australia punching above its weight through global leadership

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.

The value of a strong US-Australia alliance

The enduring alliance with the United States remains Australia’s most important defence relationship. Close economic and cultural ties between the nations also continue to flourish and significantly benefit Australia and the US. The historic US-Australia partnership is unique, resilient and enviable among other nations. 

Former Australian prime ministers Malcom Fraser, Kevin Rudd and Paul Keating have each consistently argued for a recalibration of our alliance with the United States. Fraser, a former Liberal prime minister who passed away in 2015, was a major critic of Australia’s military alliance with the US and the implications for our relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Fraser called for Australia to forge an independent strategic posture apart from the US, arguing that the defence risks of our close relationship with the US outweighed any possible benefits. Likewise, previous Labor prime ministers Rudd and Keating have both asserted a need to scale back our alliance with the US government, in favour of stronger relationships within Asia. 

Though the positions of these outspoken former prime ministers might indicate division within Australian foreign policy community, our most recent Foreign Policy or Defence White Papers reflect the Morrison Government’s clear commitment to deepening Australia’s long-standing alliance with the United States and keeping this relationship at the centre of Australian security.  

Australia’s relationship with the United States is based on a robust relationship underpinned by shared democratic values, common interests and strong cultural affinities. The US-Australia partnership is formally recognised in the ANZUS treaty, which has seen significant military coordination between the two nations. The relationship extends much further, however, securing an economic boost for America and Australia and a wealth of cultural exchanges in areas such as health, science and education. For these reasons, Australia should continue to foster and strengthen close cooperation with the United States to secure a safe, prosperous and enlightened future for our country.  

Defence and Security

The history of Australia’s relationship with the United States is based on a close military alliance which has served both American and Australian national interests. The ANZUS Treaty, concluded in 1951, is Australia’s foremost security treaty alliance. While the ANZUS Treaty was created in the wake of World War II when the risk of invasion from Japan was still live in our collective memory, our military relationship has since deepened due to the ANZUS Treaty and ensures that Australia continues to develop its military alongside the strongest in the world. The US-Australia Force Posture Agreement signed in 2014 and the 2015 Joint Statement on Defence Cooperation have instructed the annual rotation of US Marines to Darwin and enhanced rotations of US aircraft to Australia. The Talisman Saber is a biennial military endeavour between the two militaries, enhancing our respective combat readiness and interoperability of our forces. This project reflects the progressive, forward- thinking military relationship that America and Australia have managed to create that is responsive to modern security threats. 

Our relationship with the strongest military in the world provides Australia with privileged access to information and high-end military equipment. This has allowed Australians to foil at least a dozen domestic terrorist plots since 2014, break up transnational crime networks, and stop money laundering and illicit trafficking of drugs, weapons, and people. Our military alliance with the US assists the Australian Defence Force as it responds to security threats and provides an added edge for us within the Pacific region. As China continues to rise, pursuing an aggressive foreign policy agenda, the muscle of the US Armed Forces can be leveraged as a counter-balance to China and shape a stable, prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Australia is a small population, with limited military force in a culturally diverse region. For this reason, it is important that hubris does not stain foreign policy, leading us to think we are better or more powerful than we really are. Our military relationship with the United States has ensured that Australia remains a secure, free and open state in a region where this is not the status quo.  

Trade and Investment

Australia and the United States are not only strong military allies. Our economic partnership is critical to our interests. While Australia’s trade relationships, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, has lead to unprecedented growth and prosperity, the United States remains Australia’s most indispensable economic partner. Our economic relationship encompasses extensive two-way investment supporting production, growth and jobs in both countries. The United States-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has served as the basis of our bilateral trade relationship since the agreement came into effect on January 1, 2005. Under the FTA, all tariffs have been eliminated for products exported from the United States to Australia. The FTA has led to the growth of trade and investment in both countries. The United States is the largest foreign direct investor in Australia, accounting for nearly 25 per cent of foreign investment – more than the next two countries – Japan and the UK – combined. The foreign capital provided by the United States is a crucial driver of employment, economic growth, and also the ability to export. Ultimately, foreign investment facilitates Australia’s trading relationships by providing the necessary capital and know-how for production of goods and services.

Innovation and Cultural Exchange

Australia and the US have successfully established and maintained partnerships that benefit both states. As part of the Australian National Innovation and Science Agenda, the Australian government has established a ‘Landing Pad’ in San Francisco to facilitate cooperation by US and Australian entrepreneurs. Australian scientists, researchers, and innovators enjoy maximum access to America’s world-class innovation ecosystem, and US academics and researchers travel to Australia to share their findings and learn from Australian counterparts. US and Australian government agencies also work together to advance global environmental goals. Zoos and universities in the United States and Australia are working collaboratively to save threatened species, such as the iconic Tasmanian Devil.

The United States and Australia also share best practices, personnel, and technology and equipment to combat wildland fires. In 2017 Wildland Fire Management Agreement was signed, building on 15 years of close collaboration. The United States and Australia also work together to build and strengthen health system capacities, including addressing antimicrobial resistance, human resources for health, and infrastructure within the Asia Pacific region. A recent example of this strong coordination was demonstrated in a call between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Prime Minister Scott Morrison indicating plans to coordinate responses to the coronavirus in the Pacific. With President Trump’s recent decision to halt funding to the WHO this may make further funding available to strengthen bilateral and regional health coordination between the United States, Australia and their allies.  

A special relationship worth preserving

US presidents and officials have often referred to Australia as America’s closest friend and most trusted ally. This reputation is consistent with the special treatment and benefits Australian’s receive within the United States. For instance, the E3 visa is a United States visa only available to Australian citizens created by an Act of the United States Congress. Approving 10,500 slots for Australians each year, this visa is exceptional and signifies America’s appreciation of our alliance. In 2013, Ireland called for the E3 visa to be shared among Australians and the Irish, but these calls have so far been resisted in Congress. Then-Australian Ambassador Joe Hockey and the Embassy’s congressional liaison team successfully advocated for a change in the language of the first version of the proposed E3 amendment to ensure this outcome. Australia succeeded in Congress because of our historical defence bond and strong relationship with America.

Nonetheless, the narrative that Australia must choose between China and the United States has gained considerable traction in the media in recent years. At the heart of the story is the notion that Australia is economically beholden to China—a perception that China encourages. While there is no denying that escalating competition between China and the United States carries risks, Australia can continue to enjoy a strong, multifaceted partnership with the US whilst trading with China. The argument that Australia is at a cross-roads and somehow at the behest of China is weakened by the fact that China and the US have closer economic independence than China and Australia. Australia’s significant trade with China provides few, if any channels for the PRC to coerce Australia economically. The Chinese are not purchasing Australian commodities because they want to cultivate a friendship or drive a wedge between Australia and the United States. We are a supplier of choice to the Chinese as we have proven ourselves to be an efficient and reliable supplier by international standards. If China does not buy our commodities, someone else will. Research by Shiro Armstrong on the China–Japan relationship—a relationship marked by deep mistrust and periodic heightened tensions concluded that “trade has not been diminished or disturbed by politics to a significant extent”.

If Japan and a host of other countries in our region including South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and Taiwan can enjoy growing trade with China while maintaining a strategic relationship with the US, surely Australia can do the same. Australia’s foreign policy debate needs to progress beyond an unhelpful focus on binary alignment choices toward a deeper dialogue about the practical challenges that China’s influence poses for alliance management. In saying this, it would be beneficial for the US and Australia to build a more resilient coalition where we discuss areas of divergence in our approach to China. This will secure productive, US-Australia relations and a united front on future foreign policy.  

Shared history, values, and prosperity have allowed the US-Australia alliance to thrive for the better part of a century, furthering both states militarily, economically and culturally. It is within our interests to maintain and grow the US-Australia partnership to ensure both nations can work together to tackle geo-political challenges with force and unity.

A global spread: novel strain of authoritarianism infects democracies

2020 has been an unprecedented year by all metrics. Reflecting on the few months endured so far, our current affairs would be better suited to the plot of a fictional novel or Netflix series than life as we know it. The Coronavirus has stretched medical services to breaking point, bound people to their homes, closed borders and suffocated economies. While it is not the intention here to minimise the human cost of this tragedy that continues to unfold, one of its most enduring effects could be to usher in an unsettling period of authoritarian politics.

At this stage, most countries have introduced some form of extraordinary measures to battle the coronavirus. Democratic governments and authoritarians alike are increasing their power by curtailing civil liberties. Procedures previously classed as dangerous expansions of state power are now being lauded by leaders and public health officials as the only way to curb the global pandemic. In ordinary times, significant increases in government power stir furious debate and protest. Yet, the Coronavirus has shown us that citizens are willing to accept mass curtailment of their freedoms in the interests of public health. It has been collectively agreed that extraordinary times, call for extraordinary measures. The key concern here is that while emergency responses can be swiftly introduced, such temporary measures are at risk of becoming the new normal.

Warnings from Hungary

Take Hungary, the first democracy to fall under this Pandemic as a preliminary warning. Last week the Hungarian Parliament passed a law by a 2/3 majority affording the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rule by decree for an indefinite period. Hungarians found to spread information deemed to be untrue, interfere with the protection of the public or alarm large groups will face several years’ imprisonment. While the Hungarian government insists that these measures will last only as long as the crisis does, the duration is entirely up to Orbán as emergency powers can only be lifted by a Parliamentary supermajority, which Orbán happens to hold. There is a line between using emergency powers and outright authoritarianism, one that Hungary has undoubtedly crossed. With a failing democratic state in Hungary, what could this mean for the world’s remaining democracies?

Authoritarian responses to crises within democracies

Two decades ago, 9/11 shook the world to its core. The international community responded by introducing wide-ranging counter-terrorism laws. The US Patriot Act expanded the surveillance powers of the United States government and established a system of indiscriminate global surveillance. Surveillance technology developed by the US during the Cold War was later used by the FBI to track civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, and in the 1970s, anti-crime warrants that were initially approved in response to violent crime were later used against protesters during the Vietnam War. In Australia, equally significant changes took place. To date, Australia has some of the most draconian anti-terrorism laws in the Western world and is the only Western liberal democracy that allows ASIO, the domestic intelligence agency to detain persons for seven days without charge or trial and without reasonable suspicion that those detained are involved in terrorist activity. If repressive government responses to 9/11 are any indication of how new legislation will impact a post-COVID world, the future strength and endurance of our democracies is in jeopardy.

Freedom of Assembly  

 Freedom of assembly, a fundamental right, has now been severely restricted in most countries. Celebrations and significant events such as weddings and funerals have been banned in the UK or drastically restricted in other countries. Government orders have also seen a global freeze on religious meetings, impacting the way individuals gather in their faith communities and evangelise. Elections are also being postponed in the interests of ‘flattening the curve’. The Democratic presidential primary in the United States has been postponed in at least 12 states and territories. In Britain, local elections scheduled for May have also been postponed. While postponing elections is the better choice given the risk of mass disease transmission, it is important to consider that delaying elections indefinitely could deprive governments of their legitimacy and allow incumbents to use these delays to entrench their power and hold elections when convenient.  

Police powers

Across the democratic world countries such as Australia, the UK and France have seen increasingly repressive social distancing measures. In Australia, the federal government has left enforcement to the states, creating uncertainty and a space for arbitrary policing. Police in Victorian and New South Wales are handing out ‘on the spot’ fines of up to $20,000 and terms of up to six months’ imprisonment for failure to follow self-isolation rules. There are also police powers to conduct random checks. France recently commenced a 15-day lockdown, deploying 100,000 police officers across the country. Citizens are required to present identification paperwork to police to prove they can leave their homes to buy necessities or attend work. The United Kingdom’s coronavirus bill gives police, public health and immigration officers sweeping powers to detain people suspected of carrying the coronavirus. Police in Warrington said it had issued six court summons for offences, such as shopping for “non-essential items” and going “out for a drive due to boredom,” while Derbyshire Police admitted using drones to monitor citizens out walking. While it is important for people to adhere to social distancing to maximise their health and the health of the broader community, rushed laws that expand arbitrary police powers have several inherent risks. In India, police brutality has been widely publicised. In an appalling video that went viral, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh force young boys to perform frog jumps as punishment for violating the state curfew. A video shared in March this year displays police waiting outside a mosque in the southern state of Karnataka, beating worshipers with a stick as they leave. Similar cases of oppressive law enforcement have been reported around the country. Social media accounts display messages of people running out of food yet afraid to leave their dwellings, fearful of the police. While abuse of police powers varies throughout the democratic world, all democracies must protest police abuse and pressure law-makers to clarify COVID laws, removing the risk of arbitrary application.

Surveillance powers

Akin to increased surveillance powers post-9/11, democracies are acting swiftly to keep a close eye on their citizens. Israel’s counterterrorism unit will use technologies like phone tracking – typically used on Palestinians – to track citizens, sending a text to their phone when they breach quarantine rules or may have come into contact with an infected person. South Korea, has employed web developers to build detailed maps of citizens’ movements using CCTV, phone-tracking and bank transaction data. Taiwan has built an electronic fence using phone-tracking data to enforce quarantine measures. Strict surveillance measures adopted to monitor citizens during coronavirus lockdowns could result in the long-lasting erosion of personal freedoms. United Nations’ privacy chief Joseph Cannataci warned of the danger with sweeping surveillance laws introduced to protect citizens in exceptional circumstances. The privacy chief cautioned that while most civilians accept the need for emergency measures, they could outlast the current crisis. While health data can be useful in assessing citizens’ vulnerability to COVID-19, it could also be abused by governments and hackers to vilify vulnerable minorities. Cannataci describes a situation where such information could be abused to identify HIV-positive people in countries where homophobia is widespread and this condition is seen as an indicator of homosexuality. Additional surveillance during emergency crises such as the coronavirus are demanded however, by accepting such laws, we open the possibility of further encroachment on our civil liberties.

Government intervention to close businesses, enforce social distancing, postpone elections and ramp up surveillance may be required to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus and protect the medical system from inundation. However, these measures may come at the incredible cost of weakening our democracies and steering a new wave of authoritarianism within the international order. The true test of time will reveal how many emergency measures will linger and continue to shape our world post-COVID-19. In the meantime, developing laws and regulations must include the necessary safeguards to ensure that measures are proportionate and temporary.