I hear China's President Xi Jinping has not had the courtesy to ring our Prime Minister this year. He should.
He should not only offer assistance to Australia as it wrestles along with the rest of the world with the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, he should have the decency to explain how this pandemic erupted from his country.
The Chinese Communist Party leadership has become arrogant, unlike the leadership I dealt with as foreign minister: Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Xi Jinping should think about the impact his internal policies have had on the global community – on human lives, on the jobs particularly of lower-income people, and on the structure of societies.
You would think, just for five minutes, the party leadership in Beijing would reflect on the huge damage that has been done to the world by a coronavirus pandemic that began in Wuhan.
For our part, we shouldn’t be frightened of offending China or inciting Sinophiles in Australia by being robust in our comments about China and its role in the coronavirus pandemic.
You can’t have a good foreign policy if you don’t say anything. Diplomacy, the hardest of all political arts, requires us to stake out our ground. We have to make clear, simple and strong points and try to influence other countries to follow our lead.
From my experience, the Americans and south-east Asians will be interested in what we have to say about how to manage the China relationship.
There are three quite clear points to be made about China.
First, a popular trope of the month is that we should become less dependent on supply chains from China. This needs to be thought through a bit more carefully. After all, we don’t want to impoverish ourselves more than we are already doing by replacing free trade with a new protectionism.
One way of setting up such an inquiry could be through the United Nations Security Council.
What like-minded countries need to do is develop a coherent strategy to address sensitive supply chain issues. We should, for example, look at how we can reduce our dependence on China for the supply of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals.
And in an era in which high tech, electric vehicles and clean energy are ubiquitous, we should review our dependence on China for rare earths – essential raw materials in these sectors.
That brings me to my second point. We need to know how this pandemic happened in the first place. China’s role here has been, in diplomatic speak, “unhelpful”.
First of all there were denials that there was a virus which could be transmitted between humans, then its dangers were played down, then the Chinese government banned travel in and out of Wuhan to other parts of China but kept international links open.
That’s nice. They tried to stop the spread of the virus to other parts of China but they didn’t care that it could spread to other parts of the world.
And remember, when the Australian government in February decided to ban visitors from China into Australia, the Chinese embassy said it was “an extreme measure” and “an overreaction”. I suppose that’s why Scott Morrison hasn’t received a phone call from Xi Jinping. But Morrison saved Australian lives.
Western leaders need to demand there be a full investigation into the causes of the spread of COVID-19.
Of course China will play a central role in this investigation, but the investigation must include epidemiologists and other scientists from a range of countries. It could even be led by the World Health Organisation, but its opinions cannot be censored by China.
One way of setting up such an inquiry could be through the United Nations Security Council. Some have suggested that China would veto such a resolution. I’m not so sure.
On what basis would China refuse to allow such an international inquiry?
What arguments would it deploy to refuse a world so savagely damaged by COVID-19 the ability to know how it happened in the first place?
Origins of the virus
Frankly, I don’t think we really know how this terrible virus broke out of Wuhan. Most commentators believe it was spread from the wet markets of Wuhan. Perhaps.
Others have suggested it could have inadvertently come from one of the two virology research institutes which happen to be based in Wuhan. I have no idea, but I think we need to find out so it doesn’t happen again.
China’s soft power will certainly be damaged by the COVID-19 crisis. The best way for the Communist Party leadership to minimise that damage is to demonstrate that China really is a country which wants to integrate and contribute to the broader international system, not just selfishly pursue its own interests at the expense of others.
Our leaders owe it to our people to demand this investigation. And if China refuses, then that will be hugely damaging to China’s influence and place in the world, make no mistake about that.
Thirdly, there is WHO. Like most UN institutions, it’s weak. When suddenly it’s urgent support is required, it has been found wanting. Like-minded countries need to get together and work out a reform program for WHO so it becomes a much more useful contributor to serious global health issues.
Withdrawing funding altogether isn’t going to help. But tying that funding to improved outcomes and making sure there is a co-ordinated like-minded position benchmarking those outcomes makes a good deal of sense.
I say all of this as somebody who has promoted for many years the growing Australian relationship with China. I signed many agreements with China, I helped build the economic ties which have brought great wealth to Australia.
I’ve been keen on Chinese students studying in Australia and I haven’t had a problem with Chinese companies investing here. I even served for a period as a non-executive director on the board of Huawei Australia.
But seriously, no country can cause a global catastrophe of these dimensions without being held to account by the international community. Australia needs to make that point very simply and very clearly.