Contact tracing: Australia’s call for a COVID-19 inquiry

Contact tracing: Australia’s call for a COVID-19 inquiry

Beijing worries that an international investigation would discredit its actions early in the outbreak.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

As Australia begins to reopen its economy amid falling rates of new COVID-19 cases, attention may pivot to questions about the origins of the virus.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Canberra’s calls for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 have sparked a diplomatic row with Beijing
– Australian officials have resisted what they have deemed threats of economic coercion from Beijing
– China is Australia’s largest trade partner, giving Beijing considerable leverage over the Australian economy, especially during an economic downturn

EASING RESTRICTIONS, GROWING TENSIONS

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has signalled his support for easing restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as the number of new cases falls across the country. The prime minister has been calling for the establishment of an internationally-backed, independent inquiry into the origins of the virus, a proposal that has been met with resistance by Beijing. Most notably, China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, suggested that a push for such an inquiry was “dangerous” and could be met with a Chinese “consumer boycott” of Australia.

The interview was followed by China’s leaking of the details of a private phone call between Cheng Jinye and Frances Adamson, Secretary of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Details of the call were published on the Chinese embassy website and have contributed to the tensions rising over the perceived threat of economic coercion by Beijing. DFAT released a statement questioning the veracity of the Chinese embassy’s claims whilst declining to offer a contradicting account, on the grounds of not wanting to breach “long standing diplomatic courtesies.”

MIDDLE POWER MEETS WOLF WARRIOR DIPLOMACY

Photo: fernando zhiminaicela/Pixabay

Canberra has long recognised itself as a ‘middle power’ and a nation that ‘punches above its weight’ in international affairs, partly because of its ‘great and powerful friends’ but also because of its vast geographic size, strategic position and natural resource wealth. The call for an independent inquiry fits this style of middle power diplomacy: it appeals to multilateralism to check the behaviour of bigger players and sets the agenda. The call also fits Canberra’s pattern of supporting an increasingly strained ‘international rules-based order’, a notion that has guided Australia’s diplomatic interactions in the Asia-Pacific.

Beijing almost certainly perceives the call for an independent inquiry as a threat aimed specifically at China. Such an inquiry would be unwelcome at a time when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is deeply concerned with its domestic and international image. This is because of the likely result: a condemnation of the CCP’s decision-making early in the crisis and a confirmation that the virus originated in Wuhan. These conclusions would only compound growing anti-Beijing sentiment internationally and run counter to the party’s domestic messaging. Delaying or blocking an inquiry is advantageous to the CCP, as, without solid evidence, Beijing and its representatives can continue to assume tactical agnosticism over claims that the virus originated in China. This degree of uncertainty — while small — allows Chinese officials to deflect hard questions surrounding the CCP’s culpability in exacerbating the crisis with the assertion that other questions, such as COVID-19’s origin, remain unanswered.

Beijing’s response to the inquiry request so far has been to deploy its political warfare capabilities — specifically threats of economic coercion and public opinion psy-ops. In addition to this coercion and intimidation, Beijing is also attempting to co-opt Australian policymakers and the public via Chinese and Australian media. However, the repeated emphasis on the benefits of the bilateral relationship and calls for unity at a time of crisis have ultimately been overshadowed by statements in Chinese media calling Australia “a piece of gum stuck on China’s shoe.”

A SECRET OFFENSIVE?

Photo: Department of State

Though Canberra’s foreign policy is closely entwined with that of Washington and has been since the end of the Second World War, the row with Beijing highlights that this proximity to Washington will negatively impact Sino-Australian relations as political tensions escalate during the global pandemic. The strain will only increase should Australian politicians double down on their calls for a review. This is a likely scenario, as Morrison recently stated that “I don’t think anybody’s in any fantasy land about where it started. It started in China.” The fact that Washington has also come out in support of the inquiry will likely cement Canberra’s resolve whilst simultaneously hardening Beijing’s position that Australia acts in the US’s interests.

However, Canberra’s rhetoric will be tempered by its trade reliance on China. If Beijing chooses to clamp down on Australian imports, it could effectively cripple the Australian economy, which is heavily dependent on trade. This reality, coupled with the findings of a 2019 Defence preparedness review that highlighted Australia’s strategic vulnerability to disruptions in the global supply chain, will likely deter Canberra from escalating overt political tensions with Beijing. Similarly, it is unlikely Beijing would react to continued calls for an inquiry by causing significant damage to the Australian economy — a move that would effectively force Canberra to direct its criticism squarely at the CPP itself. At a time when Beijing is preaching international cooperation, an incident in which the party responded disproportionately and caused deliberate economic harm to a major trade partner would only generate greater wariness of China and strengthen calls for economic decoupling. Moreover, the shadow of economic coercion may have been sufficient to compel advocacy from large Australian private interests sympathetic to China.

As such, Beijing’s response will likely include the leveraging of its economic influence and access to the vast Chinese market, a common tactic used to dissuade other countries from doing things that the CCP doesn’t like. This kind of economic coercion, accompanied by harsh rhetoric, is just one instrument in Beijing’s political warfare arsenal and there is a strong chance the CCP will employ other tools as a means of pressuring decision-makers in Canberra should they continue to vocalise support for an independent inquiry. Media psy-ops aimed at eroding political resistance amongst Australia politicians and citizens can be expected to continue, following a narrative of Chinese economic dominance and the prudence of submitting to Beijing’s interests.

Out of the public eye, there is a strong possibility of increases in covert operations on both sides. Canberra has been developing offensive cyber capabilities to ‘deny, disrupt and degrade’ threats, capabilities that are likely to be employed covertly in anticipation of cyber-attacks from China. Beijing is a formidable player in the cyber domain and previous cyber-attacks on Australian public institutions and private businesses have been attributed to Chinese actors. This is a reason to assume that tensions will be accompanied by heightened offensive activity in cyberspace, especially considering the track record of major attacks emanating from Chinese territory. The notion that both states regularly engage in such activity to continuously hone their capabilities and degrade competitors seems prudent, if not necessary, for national security. Arguably, deterrence by punishment in the cyber domain might be the CCP’s optimal strategy in this scenario — a readily deniable, covert way of penalising unwelcome behaviour at a time when too great an overt response could jeopardise its attempts to shore up its international image.

Whilst the exact details of a mutual escalation in cyberspace will largely be obscured from the public eye, the ways in which both sides act the next time Australian and Chinese officials are at odds may offer a hint about how well Canberra faired against the ‘Cyber Dragon.’