No joke, China, this is a triumph of Australia’s middle-power diplomacy

Australia

The motion demands that the World Health Organisation conduct “at the earliest appropriate moment” an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the pandemic. Beijing vehemently opposed initial calls for any inquiry. For Australia, the pursuit of an investigation has come at the cost of the Canberra-Beijing relationship, with a litany of trade-related threats and repercussions now coming from Beijing.

Beijing’s opaque reporting of the COVID-19 outbreak evolved into propagating misinformation and then escalated into threatening diplomatic and economic repercussions for countries that dared to challenge it. Many nations have now had tensions boil over, including the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Sweden and Germany.

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Many countries that signalled early support for the inquiry have been China’s strategic allies and have until recently frequently aligned with it in international forums. The early endorsement of countries such as members of the full African Group reveals the scale of the backlash China is facing. Among the 54 nations supporting the inquiry are many that have been significant beneficiaries of Chinese investment, particularly through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Amid growing pressure, President Xi Jinping addressed the World Health Assembly on Monday night, speaking in favour of an inquiry. Xi used the opportunity to portray China as a constructive member of the international community and went on to pledge financial support for developing countries. He also placed emphasis on China’s support for Africa, a not-so-subtle overture to the many countries in which it has heavily invested.

China has honed its diplomatic statecraft over the past decades, becoming more adept at massaging international institutions to support and legitimise its actions. It capitalised on the dearth of leadership created by the withdrawal of the United States from these international institutions. Four of the 15 United Nations specialised bodies are headed by China – despite the fact it is more common for a single country to account for no more than one. As its influence grows, China has become increasingly bold.

This was on display at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York last year, when two duelling non-binding statements laid bare China’s growing diplomatic clout. A British-led statement, supported by 23 countries, critiqued China’s human rights record in light of growing evidence of the mass imprisonment of ethnic Uighur and Turkic minorities in Xinjiang. However, a Belarusian counter-statement praising China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights” was backed by 54 nations.

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The Belarusian statement brought together a wide range of countries that increasingly benefit from maintaining a carefully managed relationship with China. It was supported by countries including Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Serbia and Russia. However, these countries, and many more, have now found themselves veering from China’s orbit as a result of the mismanagement of the pandemic.

Early backers of the inquiry into the pandemic included Saudi Arabia, which has been conspicuously quiet on the oppression of Muslim Uighurs and maintained a careful relationship with Beijing.

The growing global divisions and the eroding influence of multilateral institutions had been well under way before the pandemic. Historian Patrick Wyman told The New York Times that “crises like these reveal what is already broken or in the process of breaking”.

The global bifurcation playing out in trade, technology and manufacturing will continue. However, in the face of relentless pressure from Beijing, Australia has set an example of effective global leadership from a middle power in testing times.

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The Morrison government, particularly Foreign Minister Marise Payne and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is right to celebrate the global support of the motion for an inquiry as a win for the international community and Australia.

Philip Citowicki was an adviser to former Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop and a political aide to Australia’s high commissioner to the UK.

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