The announcement of the international inquiry to be conducted into international management of the COVID-19 pandemic did not achieve any of the particular purposes initially said to justify Australia's putting its head above the parapets and attracting China's ire for doing so. That's no matter how much domestic spin doctors and a fairly tame media are dressing up the result as a diplomatic triumph showcasing Australian stateswomanship.
If one judges by the public statements of Foreign Minister Marise Payne, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the inquiry should have been focused particularly on China's scientific and political management of the coronavirus once it discovered it in its midst. And such an independent inquiry should have been outside the auspices of the World Health Organization, which is being criticised for being too much influenced by China, and whose own responses to the crisis have been criticised, not least by President Donald Trump (when he has not been otherwise blaming the pandemic on the Democrats, "fake" media or perhaps "Obamagate").
The Australian idea, in short, was that there would be a sharp spotlight put on China over what it did from the time, now apparently in November rather than early December as first suggested, when some of its respiratory surgeons came to suspect a new infectious agent of SARS was at large, particularly in the area around Wuhan.
The agenda - it has been regularly rehearsed, both here in Australia and in the US - is to suggest that the Chinese central authorities initially dithered about what to do, but in the meantime focused on secrecy, cover-up and intimidation of those in the know, losing precious time that might have led to a successful intervention and prevented the virus travelling abroad and killing hundreds of thousands of people. Some have even suggested - or demanded intelligence agencies find evidence to support their suspicion - that the bug was created in a Chinese biological warfare laboratory, with the idea of weakening other countries such as the United States. There is no evidence for this. Hawks, in Australia as well as abroad, have simply seen in the Chinese response - as they see in every blooming flower there - proof of China's sinister intentions towards the world.
Any criticism able to be made of China - of dithering, a tendency to deny rather than face up, the use of secrecy and threats to silence doctors, and of institutional inertia - is likely to be able to be made of the US.
The resolution ultimately adopted at the World Health Assembly was significantly different from that originally proposed by Australia. Some of the differences might be said to be mere genuflections to the achievement of consensus - indeed, it was a resolution that even China could sponsor. But, it soon became clear, the sudden amity did not show in any restoration of warmth for the Australian pigs in the minefield. [During WWII in Northern Africa, sheep or pigs were sent into heavily mined areas in the hope that their weight would detonate the mines. In politics, a pig in a minefield is the noble self-sacrificing effort of a person or a country that puts an item on an agenda, thus drawing all of the rage upon itself. In Cold War matters, this is an Australian speciality.]
A fresh torrent of abuse of Australia's diplomacy issued from Beijing and Chinese embassies, and little but meaningful tokens of sudden Chinese resistance to buying from Australia appeared. In the best of circumstances, it will take time for the bad temper to resolve itself - inconveniently, just as Australia is looking for a resumption of trade and tourism to kickstart the post-coronavirus economy.
But that could be the least of the resentments Australia brings upon itself. Chinese diplomacy did not quash the potential for criticism of what China did. The resolution will also permit a searching examination of what other nations did once they were aware of the virus and its potential. Australia may not anticipate much criticism of how the nation and its political and medical leaders faced the crisis. But there is an array of other nations - starting with the United States, but also including Britain, Spain, Italy, Brazil and Sweden - whose decisions and responses will now be under the microscope. One might say that the more democratic and open-minded of these nations will undoubtedly conduct such reviews themselves. But in their own time - separate from domestic political timetables, such as the US presidential election in November - and with their own tame team of "experts". It is just possible that Donald Trump might not welcome a transparent and independent review, beyond his power to control, coming out at the worst possible moment. And that he might blame Australia for its bright idea, even if he and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, had initially praised what had appeared to be an opportunity for a free kick of China.
Any criticism able to be made of China - of dithering, a tendency to deny rather than face up, the use of secrecy and threats to silence doctors, and of institutional inertia - is likely to be able to be made of the US. On the face of it, the US intelligence agencies and public health authorities, including its Centers for Disease Control - were aware of the nature of the virus, the suspicions about its epidemiology and aetiology, and its genetic structure from the first days of this year. They were aware of this directly from China, but also through the WHO, to whom China had publicly reported at the end of 2019. That was well before - three weeks before - China was confiding in its own population, and initiating its quarantine and social isolation measures with a brutal efficiency that seems to have suffocated the spread.
The US - which has usually led the world in the study and understanding of epidemic disease - could have been expected to be exemplary in its own management and confinement of any local outbreak, and in supplying the rest of the world with knowledge and resources. It has done it before, both through the WHO and also in many bilateral aid programs.
This time about, however, a massive failure of political leadership at the top, as well as the consequences of running down resources and expertise, left the US flat-footed, even now looking to be having the worst mortality from the disease. It had months to prepare, but the US administration effectively did nothing, other than to issue false reassurances that it had matters under control. Even with social controls - including lockdowns, shutdowns and social spacing - the US went late and in an unco-ordinated manner. An estimate this week, for example, was that 30,000 of the US dead would still be alive had such controls been in place just a week before they were imposed.
Countries have adopted their own strategies, with different senses of urgency and of grim purpose. In parts of the US, and in Sweden, there has been a good deal less lockdown. Italy and Spain, in particular, were early evidences of complacency, but, also probably places where incidence was higher because of a significantly older population. As in the United States, the death rate in Britain says much about the quality of government.
By contrast, the successes of countermeasures in south-east Asia, as well as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Australia and New Zealand with their additional advantages of nautical boundaries, are a reproach to most of the rest of the world. It would be impossible to do a merely medical or scientific study of the emergence, distribution and abundance of the virus without close examination of the political and economic measures taken by particular countries. And, down the track, such an examination would almost certainly also require a review of the success of various countries in picking the moment to slow, and then reverse, some of the social isolation measures to get economies running again.
Trump: the man who made America little again
The irony, of course, is that a president who campaigned on making America great again has presided over - indeed caused - an enormous fall in American prestige, moral authority and effective power in the world. It may still have, by far, the most military power, and enormous economic resources, but the practical management of the COVID-19 crisis invites only derision. Nor has it overcome the embarrassment of its poor performance in its own country with outstanding science on behalf of the world. Down the track a vaccine or a standard treatment regime may emerge from American genius - but so far most of the lessons for the world are in examples of what not to do, and in the evidence it has presented of a central leadership sunk in populism, crude prejudices, anti-intellectualism and obscurity. Whatever it is, the Trump United States is not a clever country, nor, in the form of its society or system of government, a presently great one.
The disorganised response, the increasing resistance to social isolation strategies, and the desperation to declare the emergency over so as to reboot the economy and tackle unemployment suggest that the US will be among the last major nations to emerge from deep recession. That, coupled with the impact of the epidemics in much of Europe, will inevitably have a strong influence on the speed with which world trade and growth resumes. For Australia, as a trader in raw materials, and for China, in manufactured goods.
Australians, Chinese, or citizens of other countries cannot simply observe such failures as events far away. The prosperity, and coherence, of the North American and European economies is as vital to Chinese stability as it is Australia's. In Australia, indeed, it probably matters more than all of the domestic budget measures in August. World trade and growth, and the soaking up of mass unemployment, will only get going again when a paralysed America, a flattened Europe and nations such as India are back at full power. Nor is there much to be hoped for or expected if Joe Biden is to defeat Trump in November. No doubt he would seek to reverse some of the more egregious acts of the current administration. But he will have to deal with the new world as he finds it, rather than seek to recreate a past. The influence, polarisation and bitterness of the Trump years will likely last long beyond him. And that's assuming Trump loses - to my mind, only a 50-50 proposition, even given the state of the economy and the temper of the American people.
An early criticism of the draft Australian resolution calling for an inquiry was that it seemed to be looking for critical assessments of China's politicians - perhaps the whole political structure of the state - rather than, as desirable and necessary, an independent and transparent critical review of the science and the progress of the disease, with a focus on lessons to be learnt for the future.
There was always going to be such an international scientific and medical review, conducted by independent experts. The World Health Organization has routinely conducted such reviews, after, for example, the SARS and MERS outbreaks of earlier this century, various Ebola epidemics in Africa, and swine flu a few years ago. These have been rigorous and, if not focused on the politicians involved, have incorporated examination of the timing and quality of regional, national and international responses, problems of logistics, management of information and so on. And the results of such inquiries have been incorporated into the advice issued by WHO with fresh outbreaks, and the way it organises its own resources and the way it pitches itself to different countries.
MORE FROM JACK WATERFORD:
It is perfectly true that the WHO is a bureaucracy, full of politics and not a little corruption, particularly in the necessity to manage donor countries and its personnel - bloated in some areas, seriously under-resourced in others. For all of that, it is, like most UN agencies, fairly effective in its sense of mission, in its science, and in its organisation and leadership of international resources against epidemics. That the US, in particular, feels that it has become a boondoggle, in the old UNESCO image, reflects rather less any ineffectiveness, or any reflex kowtow to China, as declining official involvement in the field.
China does have considerable influence in the organisation, as one might expect given its population and the fact that at least four of its operational directorates are run by Chinese scientists. But it is also a reflection of China's diplomatic extension into aid politics, its activism in seeking leadership of some Third-World issues, and its cultivation of latent hostility in other countries to the US.
China, in short, is increasingly jumping into the gaps caused by American retreat. I expect it will continue to buy and sell goods to Australia on an essentially commercial basis, even as it despises our leaders as folk unable to imagine an independent national existence, with a sense of our own national interests rather than assiduous toadying to a US that no longer much cares.
Even then, however, that Australia's government (and the alternative one) have gone out of their way to offend and insult China, for no apparent Australian purpose, is hardly calculated to invite any throwing of bones. Such timing? Was it for a domestic political purpose - such as harvesting wellsprings of Australian racism, or to cheer people up as they languished at home? Was it to express distaste at an authoritarian communist regime which persecutes minorities and people, such as Taiwanese or Hong Kong folk, with insufficient unthinking loyalty to the party? If so, why now, when the Chinese regime is especially toey because of a strange trade war with the US and because of events in Hong Kong? Australia has been generally indifferent to Chinese human rights abuses for decades, and has spent much of the last decade copying its technology and methods - not to mention its indifferent cruelty.
The world might have briefly noticed that Australia has seemed important enough to be abused by Beijing. But even among those who would rate that an honour, I very much doubt that the whole affair has enhanced national prestige, or the reputation of our leaders.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. firstname.lastname@example.org