The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented health and economic crisis but it has been made worse by the failures of the two countries that should be leading the response. Ordinarily in a crisis of this sort the world would look to the US and China to step up either at international organisations such as the United Nations or the G20 or by co-ordinating their individual actions. Unfortunately for quite different reasons, both countries seem incapable of taking up this mantle.
Many countries distrust China because its slow and secretive response to the initial outbreak allowed the disease to spread. Now that China has the disease more or less under control and is offering to help, many fear it will use its economic and military power to export its authoritarian political system.
On the other hand, the shambolic response to the crisis by President Donald Trump has undermined confidence in the US. His rambling pseudo-science lectures at press briefings have raised questions about whether he grasps what is going on. Rather than work together, both the US and China have descended into childish mutual recrimination, spiced up with improbable conspiracy theories. Since he was elected Mr Trump’s ‘‘America First’’ agenda has undermined traditional alliances and multinational institutions. He has oscillated between threatening China with trade sanctions and flattering Chinese leader Xi Jinping. For his part, Mr Xi has ‘‘talked the talk’’ of global co-operation but has been ruthless in bullying neighbours and suppressing dissent at home. Even this week, he has used the cover of the pandemic to introduce a law that could wipe out democracy in Hong Kong.
In this new world, the one positive sign to emerge over the past weeks is the hope that middle-size countries such as Australia can fill the gap and keep things together. That could be the lesson from the positive resolution to what was brewing as a destructive confrontation at a meeting of the World Health Organisation over an inquiry into the origins of the disease.
The inquiry into lessons learned should have been uncontroversial but the US and China used the issue to score political points. China wanted to neuter it for fear it might be embarrassed, while the US wanted an inquiry stacked against China to distract attention from its own failings.
Over the course of the past week, however, Australia and the European Union have worked constructively together and passed a resolution with broad support. There will be an inquiry some time with input from all parties but, for now, the WHO can get on and do its job.
China was annoyed that Australia was the first country to echo US calls for an inquiry and repeated some of the US criticisms of the WHO and China. The EU says Australia played the role of ‘‘bad cop’’ but Australia’s strong position has come at a cost: China has retaliated with trade sanctions against our barley and beef. In future, Australia should look to build alliances carefully to reduce its diplomatic exposure to China. As a mid-sized country, we must stand up for our values but we must do so with prudence.
To find this middle ground, Australia must be prepared to pursue a different line to the White House.
Similarly, Australia must do all it can to oppose Mr Trump’s threat to starve the WHO of funds at a time when the agency’s skills are needed to fight the pandemic. We must also look for allies to protect the World Trade Organisation whose rules Mr Trump has rejected. Australia needs a strong WTO to fight China’s trade sanctions.
The mutual hostility and failings of the world’s two great powers have added to the dangers inherent in the current situation. Australia and other mid-sized countries have a crucial role to play in avoiding disaster.