A coalition of 116 countries have backed Australia’s calls for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic, causing tension between Australia and China.
What is Australia Asking For?
Australia began calls for an independent inquiry into the pandemic last month. Fifty four out of 55 African Union (AU) member states soon backed the inquiry, alongside the full 27-member European Union (EU) states. Brazil, Mexico, Russia and Great Britain, have also co-sponsored the motion submitted to the World Health Organisation Assembly (WHO) earlier this week.
On Wednesday United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added the US to the list of countries backing the inquiry, following the examples of India, Canada, South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey and New Zealand.
The draft resolution asks for a comprehensive, impartial and independent inquiry into the international response to the pandemic. It also calls for a review of the lessons learned from the WHO’s response, and the global response, to the COVID-19 health crisis.
Inquiry is an ‘Appropriate’ Response: Australia’s FM
Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne has defended the inquiry as an “appropriate” response.
“I think what it illustrates is a broad view that given the experience of COVID-19 – over 300,000 deaths, millions of people around the world losing their jobs, the impact on economies from one corner of the globe to the other – that there is a strong view that it is appropriate to engage in a review of what has happened,” Payne said.
“I think it’s a win for the international community,” she added.
In retaliation, China – Australia’s biggest trading partner in exports and imports – increased tariffs on Australian barley imports by up to 80 percent. Although the inquiry does not mention China by name, China also banned beef imports from four Australian companies. Australia, however, has refused to back down despite China’s foreign minister Wang Yi accusing the nation of politicizing its inquiry.
“We are standing our ground on our values and the things that we know are always important,” Scott Morrison, Australian prime minister said in response to the tarrifs and bans.
“We draw very clear lines about things that are very important to us, as does the Chinese government,” he continued.
Australia Warns China to Back Down on Trade War
Australia’s Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud also warned China that it could take the tariffs and bans to the World Trade Organisation if needed.
“We will prosecute that case on behalf of Australian exporters,” Littleproud affirmed China. “If those that we’re prosecuting against don’t understand it, we’ll take it to an umpire for them to understand.”
The inquiry – which is a joint Australian and European Union plan – has seen the EU take part in the global conversation. Virginie Battu-Henriksson, EU spokeswoman for public affairs, argued that: “we need to have the support of all the major players, and China is one of them.
“For us, it is not the moment for us to enter any kind of blame game as we’ve seen in narratives from one part or another of the world,” she pontificated.
The Case for Impartiality
The EU and Australia have defended the impartiality of this inquiry. They claim it is not a political campaign against China.
Yet, is an inquiry consisting of 60 percent of the nations of the world one that can be conducted with full impartiality and independence? This is an especially grave question, because a precedent has been set for blaming China for the global spread of the virus. With the US’ involvement in the inquiry coalition, following Trump’s consistent anti-Chinese pandemic rhetoric, there doesn’t seem to be hope for a truly independent inquiry.
“China’s contributions to fighting the pandemic are paltry compared to the costs that they have imposed on the world,” Pompeo said during a news briefing on Wednesday. He maintained that China must offer greater transparency to the rest of the world, and criticised its response so far to the pandemic.
Perhaps most worryingly for China, countries have not explicitly stated whether the results of the inquiry would lead to big global policy and law changes: changes that may be punitive towards China. Historically, geopolitical affairs have never been handled impartially, favoring, instead, nation-states with the most power. It is no surprise then that China is fearful.