The past fortnight may be best described as a roller-coaster and not in a fun way, if I might add. The biggest development this fortnight was the US decision to withdraw funding from the World Health Organization, and in its wake, an emerging wider challenge to multilateralism in the international system. US President Donald Trump announced his decision to suspend funding to the WHO for its failure to warn the world about the pandemic and for parroting Beijing’s line on the extent and rate of infection. Although Australia has ruled out following the US example on this matter (despite growing calls from some parliamentarians to review Australian funding to the WHO), Canberra is now focused on seeking to reform the world health body, including its relationship with Beijing.
Additionally, the Australian government has called for an independent investigation led by the United Nations to look into the global response to the pandemic, including an assessment of its origins and handling by China and the WHO. In an interview this week, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne urged China to come out clean and allow the investigation to be completed with full transparency.
Earlier this fortnight, Australia urged the WHO to reconsider its backing of China’s decision to re-open its wet markets, even in the face of evidence that the current crisis began in one such wet market in Wuhan. China has lashed out at Australia, in return, accusing it of following the US lead on stigmatising Beijing.
Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has proposed the creation of an international coalition to give the WHO (or another organisation) powers equal to that of weapons inspectors to prevent another pandemic. Morrison has spoken to several leaders, including Trump this week, to discuss the working of the WHO.
Moving on, tensions between the US and China in the South China Sea are escalating. The latest salvo comes in the form of the US sending two of its warships to the waters off the coast of Malaysia, where a Chinese ship has been tailing a Malaysian state oil company ship for a few days. An Australian frigate, HMAS Parramatta, is also accompanying the American ships, as part of a regular deployment.
This comes on the heels of the Chinese government’s decision, last weekend, to set up two new administrative units under ‘Sansha city’ in the South China Sea, which includes an area of 2 million square kilometres and 200 small features. Ankit Panda notes that ‘these steps fit into an old pattern of China using its domestic institutions and legal frameworks to pursue its claims in the South China Sea.’ Vietnam and the Philippines have raised objections to these moves.
Earlier this fortnight, Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and its battle group sailed through the strait midway between Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako, and ventured close to Taiwan. Experts say that Chinese navy is taking advantage of the absence of US aircraft carriers from the region due to the pandemic. Related or not, but this came after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen publicly expressed solidarity and support to each other to overcome this period of crisis in early April.
The Indian government has tightened its scrutiny over foreign investments into the country to prevent ‘opportunistic takeovers/acquisitions of Indian companies due to the current COVID-19 pandemic’, after the People’s Bank of China raised its stake in a major Indian bank last week. The changes mean that any country sharing a ‘land border’ with India, which is looking to invest into the country, can do so only under government oversight. Thus, India has effectively curbed the prospect of Chinese firms acting predatorily to gain a footing in the Indian economy. This follows similar steps taken by governments across the world, including Australia, to shield their countries, and reflects the distrust most countries harbour vis-à-vis China.
Beijing, in turn, has slammed the Indian government’s move, calling it a violation of the World Trade Organization’s rules and has asked New Delhi to reverse this decision. As I wrote in The Strategist recently, India will continue to act in its self-interest and not shy away from taking tough decisions to protect its sovereignty, even at the risk of upsetting Beijing.
Speaking of distrust, many countries have begun seeking to move their manufacturing out of China- Japan became the first nation to begin paying its companies to do so this fortnight. It’s being reported that many of these firms are looking to diversify their manufacturing bases and see Southeast Asia and India as good alternatives to China. In a related development, the Chinese economy recorded a decline for the first time in three decades due to the coronavirus restrictions- China’s Gross Domestic Product fell 6.8% in the last quarter.
Social media has increasingly become a key battleground for ideas, narratives and in some cases, propaganda. This fortnight witnessed the emergence of what’s being called the ‘milk-tea alliance’ or pro-democracy voices in Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan, who battled Chinese internet trolls online in what turned out to be a full fledged social media war between supporters of democracy versus authoritarianism. As an observer notes, the #nnevy war ‘represent(s) a ground-up, popular moment of international solidarity between pro-democracy groups in the region and…signal(s) the possibility of dialogue and sharing of ideas between pro-democracy movements that often struggle to gain ground’.
Closer to home, Canberra and Jakarta found themselves in a bit of a tight spot this fortnight after Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Gary Quinlan, returned home due to underlying health problems, in the wake of Covid-19. Jakarta has expressed unhappiness over the ‘condescending’ messaging around this decision which seemed to fault the country’s inability to manage the health crisis as the reason for the ambassador’s exit.
Finally, a slew of unverified reports are floating around social media circles this week, including news of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un being in imminent danger of dying post a heart surgery. As with anything related to North Korea, it’s extremely difficult to ascertain the truth but the possibility of this development has left Twitteratis abuzz. Earlier this fortnight, there were also reports of China conducting another nuclear test at Lop Nur; however, they were proved inaccurate in the absence of concrete proof.
Also, some researchers are still debating whether the novel coronavirus came from a Wuhan lab or from nature- the jury is apparently still out on this matter even though most countries officially believe the latter.
Significance for Australia
The past fortnight has catapulted Australia to the forefront of the debate on global leadership or the lack of it; Canberra realises that in the vacuum created by narcissistic leaders in Beijing and Washington, it’s up to middle powers to step up, join hands and prevent the disintegration of the international system into Hobbesian anarchy.
Having managed to rein in Covid-19 at home quite successfully thus far, Canberra has the advantage to look ahead and focus on the next steps, including seeking to reform the WHO and demanding greater transparency in its functioning. The seeming departure of the US from the multilateral system at the exact moment when China seems poised to overtake it, is bad news from Australia’s perspective. As Michael Shoebridge notes, ‘…you have to be in it to win it;…it is a very bad strategic policy by the United States to gift them (China) the opportunity to have even more influence in UN agencies.’
There’s now a bipartisan push within Australia to support Taiwan’s membership at the WHO, something that’s likely to raise tensions with Beijing.
The focus within Australia is to prepare for what comes after the current crisis and prospects for the immediate future, going by current trends, don’t look too peaceful. Several analysts see Taiwan becoming a major flashpoint and Xi Jinping attempting to divert attention from his domestic problems by embarking on a nationalist adventure.
As Paul Dibb writes, it’s time for Australia to pay greater attention to the South Pacific and to our neighbours in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, to help them navigate the pandemic lest China usurp that position. More importantly for Australia, we must heed Dibb’s words when he says ‘…There will be much greater calls for self-reliance, but as the international community becomes more fractious and the liberal order recedes, we must not lurch into a new bout of introversion.’
Aakriti Bachhawat is a Researcher with the Defence and Strategy team at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute.