We can't return to business as usual with China
China is signalling it's an unreliable partner, writes Chris Uhlmann.
The virus sweeping the world has ended globe-trotting diplomacy, but virtual gatherings have flourished as leaders swap notes on the battle against a virus.
The G20 meeting was convened via a video link by Saudi Arabia on April 7 and it turned into a piece of performance art, vividly illustrating the limits of technology and the glaring flaws in the current crop of premiers, presidents and prime ministers.
The technical glitch came when a still hale Boris Johnson began to speak and no one could hear him. Either his microphone was muted or some other gremlin had infected the narrowcast but, whatever the cause, London wasn't calling.
The chief complaint with some of the other presentations was you could hear what they were saying.
"If this is the best the world has to offer then we are doomed," one witness noted.
The big problem lies with the heavyweights, the United States and China. Anyone who muses about injecting disinfectant should not be leading a boy band let alone a superpower. Even if he was fit for purpose, Donald Trump has never had any interest in leading the world. His chief political skill is in polarising domestic opinion and harvesting enough of it to win power.
But the enduring genius of America is its freedom. Powerful governors, academics and a vibrant media aren't afraid to push back against the President. We know America's flaws in vivid detail because Americans shine a spotlight on them every single day.
So, for all of America's failings, it is infinitely better than the alternative; a paranoid and increasingly aggressive totalitarian regime that reflexively lies, controls all media, persecutes and jails its domestic critics and threatens the few nations that challenge it with retribution. Xi Jinping doesn't get bad press because he doesn't allow it.
Which is why Xi is so much more of a threat to the world than Trump. The lies told by the Chinese Communist Party he leads are echoed around the world by China's embassies. The biggest lie of all is that the virus currently infecting the world did not come from China.
The Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye has disputed that the virus had started in a Wuhan "wet market". It might not have started in a wet market but it did start in Wuhan. Given how explosively infectious it is, if it had started anywhere else, we would know.
If the ambassador genuinely harbours any doubts about its origin then, surely, it's in China's interest to identify the cause. It is absolutely in Australia and the world's interest to limit the chance of another crippling pandemic.
"The Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what Australia is doing now," the ambassador complained about the Australian push for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
It's a fair bet that many Australians are a tad dismayed at the prospect of dying, being locked in their homes and having their livelihoods and futures torched by a communist party that punished the Chinese hero who tried to warn that a novel virus was on the loose in Wuhan in December. At best, we lost 20 days of preparation.
The ambassador has threatened retribution for seeking the truth. Students might decide not to come to Australian universities and tourists might go elsewhere.
"It is up to the people to decide. Maybe the ordinary people will say: 'Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?'"
Here's another uncomfortable truth about China: "the people" will decide as directed by the party.
To date, Australia's business captains and university chiefs have shown they can't handle the truth.
As long as the rivers of gold flowed, they were happy to urge silence in the face of the militarisation of the South China Sea, industrial-scale cyber theft, the arbitrary arrest of our citizens, rampant foreign interference and the imprisonment of a million Uighurs in Xinjiang. Silence means consent. That now includes agreeing to stay mute about the origin of a disease that has killed thousands, impoverished millions, threatened billions and cost trillions.
And if they understand nothing but money, they should now understand this: China is signalling it's an unreliable partner. Resuming business as usual where supply chains and income streams rely too heavily on a nation that views both as political weapons is to invite the next catastrophe. Of course we should trade with China but it has to be with our eyes wide open and consistent with a national interest that is not just measured in cash.
In the words of a former intelligence officer: "I don't understand why Australian politicians think that we have to build a relationship of trust with China in order to do business with it. Russia and China understand each other perfectly because they don't trust each other at all."