A chorus of American allies are calling for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, braving China’s anger in public disputes that could foreshadow closer Western partnerships against Beijing.
“You’re seeing a consensus among America’s closest allies that values and national security interests, with regard to the relationship with China, now trumps economics,” former Australian defense ministry adviser Patrick Buchan told the Washington Examiner.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has provided the most dramatic demonstration of that development in recent days by calling for an investigation into the emergence of the pandemic as well as the World Health Organization’s much-maligned response to the burgeoning crisis. Chinese officials tried to strangle that idea with economic threats, but Australian officials have refused to change course, to the delight of U.S. officials.
“There’s a global recognition that China is responsible for this crisis, wasn’t transparent, and that not getting to the bottom of this could lead to future pandemics,” the Atlantic Council’s Matthew Kroenig, author of a new book, The Return of Great Power Rivalry, told the Washington Examiner.
Chinese Communist officials have gone apoplectic. The editor of a state-run media outlet likened Australia to “chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes,” while Beijing’s top diplomat in Canberra issued a thinly veiled threat of economic retaliation against what the Chinese deem a “politically motivated” call for investigation.
“If the mood is going from bad to worse, people would think why we should go to such a country while it’s not so friendly to China,” Chinese Ambassador Cheng Jingye told the Australian Financial Review this week. “And also, maybe the ordinary people will think why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef. Why couldn’t we do it differently?”
China’s threats against Australia haven’t deterred other nations from taking similar steps.
“When the global situation of Covid-19 is under control, it is both reasonable and important that an international, independent investigation be conducted to gain knowledge about the origin and spread of the coronavirus,” Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren wrote in a Wednesday message to her parliament. “It is also important that the entire international community’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the World Health Organization, is investigated.”
That flouting of Chinese threats extends beyond the coronavirus issue, as the Netherlands revealed by changing the name of its de facto embassy in Taiwan in a way that reflects its expanding partnerships with the self-ruled island. Chinese Communist officials, who regard the island as a renegade province subject to Beijing’s authority, reacted angrily to the move. Chinese state-run media responded by warning that the decision might inspire “Chinese companies to immediately stop exporting medical supplies to the country.”
Such disputes bode well for U.S. efforts to rally “an alliance of democracies” against threats emanating from the Chinese Communist Party, analysts say, despite other controversies that have rocked U.S. relationships with some allies.
“This is a good sign that we’re seeing a number of key democratic allies in Europe and Asia with a pretty unified voice saying, ‘China is a problem, we need more information, and [to not be] intimidated by China’s heavy-handed response,’” Kroenig said.
The controversies dovetail with President Trump’s criticisms of both China and the WHO, causing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to renew his call for investigations and tout the superiority of democratic systems of governance over the Chinese regime.
“The solution to this crisis will come from freedom-loving people around the world,” Pompeo told reporters Wednesday, citing freedom of speech in democratic societies. “Authoritarian regimes are poorly designed to deal with the kind of crisis that this pandemic has engendered.”
In the meantime, Chinese officials went so far as to publish in an unflattering way the details of a private conversation between Cheng and one of Australia’s top diplomats, which the Australian Foreign Affairs Ministry condemned as an unusual violation of “the long-standing diplomatic courtesies and professional practices” that govern diplomatic exchanges.
“Australia is no more going to change our policy position on a major public health issue because of economic coercion or threats of coercion, than we would change our policy position in matters of national security,” Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said.
Australia’s defiance reflects a sea change in domestic public opinion in recent years, which the coronavirus pandemic intensified. “Morrison is under such domestic political pressure from the Australian people, who are now pushing back so hard against China,” explained Buchan, who leads the U.S. Alliances Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He’s got to come up with something that feeds that sentiment.”