Despite China’s resistance, independent, global review of COVID needed: Australian envoy

Despite China’s resistance, independent, global review of COVID needed: Australian envoy

This story first appeared in ETV Bharat

In this article, senior journalist Smita Sharma in an exclusive interview with Australian envoy Barry O’Farrell, talks about post-COVID global leadership, holding China accountable and the need for transparent investigations into the origin of the pandemic.

New Delhi: Australia will continue to call for a global independent review of the reasons for the Covid19 pandemic outbreak by a world body at an appropriate time, says its High Commissioner Designate to India, Barry O’Farrell. This despite Chinese envoy in Canberra threatening to stop importing wine and beef if Australia were to persist with a call for a probe.

China also warned New Zealand of trade consequences if it were to stand with Australia on this matter according to reports. “Australia will continue to speak out on issues it believes in on matters of principle,” said the High Commissioner.

Despite China’s resistance, independent, global review of COVID needed: Australian envoy

In an Exclusive Interview with Senior Journalist Smita Sharma, the new envoy who took over only in February this year, said that this review should not be seen as targeted at any specific country and it should be conducted by a UN level independent body to assure of transparency.

Asked about Australia’s call to seek a return of Taiwan to WHO as an observer four years since its ouster from the world body by Beijing, the High Commissioner said, “If you are a nation, if you have a government of some form, if you have humans living within your boundaries, you should be a part of the WHO because you are not immune to diseases and the organisation intends to help develop a response.” He hoped that India joining the Chair of the WHO executive board in the next few weeks will be a positive development for the international community.

Despite China’s resistance, independent, global review of COVID needed: Australian envoy

Praising Prime Minister Modi for early action to deal with Covid 19 crisis the envoy stressed that India is among the countries predicted to come out of this pandemic and grow and it will play the most important role in Indo-Pacific. “PM Modi’s early action and people’s response to this unprecedented national lockdown in a democracy has been extraordinary. It is all very easy to have lockdowns in authoritarian countries. We saw China lockdown a few provinces and a few cities. But this is a national voluntary lockdown by citizens in the world’s largest democracy,” said the High Commissioner.

He added that Australia strongly supports India’s aspirations to play a bigger role in global supply chains and now will be a good time to return to the RCEP fold to signal to the world its serious potential of becoming a global manufacturing hub. The Australian High Commissioner said that education will continue to be a strong aspect of bilateral ties even as many University curriculums are forced to switch online from campuses.

He hoped that Australia and New Zealand would be among the early countries that India will resume flights with post the extended lockdown period given the handling of Corona Virus by these two countries. Here are some excerpts from the exclusive conversation.


Q- What will be the important shift in Indo-Pacific in post Covid era? Will powers shift from west to east?

A- The important shift to the region involves this country India who is probably one of the few countries predicted to come out of the Covid crisis and grow. India over the last few years has shown greater engagement at the international level. India has clearly shown leadership through this crisis with not only its neighbouring countries but also as we see almost weekly in its assistance to countries around the world in providing pharmaceuticals, PPEs as other countries try to battle this crisis.

The fact that India is taking a larger international role is a good thing for the region and also across the Indo-Pacific which is important in many ways. Not just the six of the top ten military spenders but expected to have five of the six top global economies within a decade. We see Australia, India and I suspect Indonesia taking a strong role for the Pacific to the Indian Ocean and across South East Asia.

Q- This is an election year in the US. Will the US become more cautious or reluctant on global leadership?

My personal view is through a number of administrations on both sides in the US last few years we have seen a less willingness to reach out and engage. I quote a speech by EAM Jaishankar in Brunei in March where he talked about the world order being uprooted by nationalism and competition. As a result at a time like this when you are looking for countries to collaborate to resolve issues, you got more and more separate relations going on now.

Q- Do you foresee a world where COVID will cause a longer-term global retreat into nationalism and protectionism? Countries will become more inward looking?

The issue for diplomats is what remains of the rules and norms which have helped societies operate at different levels? If we look into the maritime sector, shipping operates according to a range of rules and norms, governed by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention of the Law of Seas). If countries start to interrupt or disrupt those in pursuit of competitive advantage or nationalism, it is a problem for the world. What we are seeing is rebalancing and shifting. Just as we came out of World War 2 with a suite of options that helped the countries govern for the next several years, I think we will see a rebalancing of some of those mechanisms.

Q-The Chinese envoy in Australia warned that Beijing will stop importing wine and beef if Australia continued to ask for an international investigation into its origin.It also tried warning New Zealand with trade consequences. Where do things stand?

Australia like India is a friend of the WHO. We have seen it do tremendous work in our neighbourhood particularly from our perspective across the Pacific. It makes sense to us given the magnitude of this pandemic we should stop and reflect to see whether we can be better prepared to prevent and mitigate the next one.

Inevitably there will be a next one. Australia supports an independent international review at an appropriate time when people have come to grips with Covid, to assess the spread of the disease, different approaches countries have taken to it, how information needs to be shared around those approaches and engagement of WHO for a global response.

This is not about any particular country or institution. This is not a time for criticism. But this should be time for openness and transparency so next time the world is confronted with a similar episode we are in a better place to deal with.

Q- But if the call for review is not targeted at any specific country, why did the envoy react making it China specific and even spoke of consequences. Will Australia continue to call for independent investigations ?

When PM Modi successfully asked for the G20 to have a virtual meeting earlier, one of the issues he raised was the reform of the WHO. There are many voices who would like to at the end of this terrible pandemic that has taken far too many lives and cost so many things in too many economies of the world, that we ensure next time we are better prepared to deal with it and hope it does not have the same impact.

If you want to ask why China reacted you probably need to speak to the Chinese Ambassador in India. What I know is whether in business, in politics or even in personal life, when you are confronted with a crisis, most people afterwards sit back, reflect on how could we have done better. And that is not about any individual country because as we see from the terrible tolls around the world, India is doing well in relations with Covid, Australia is doing well, but there are countries including big, rich and developed ones with big health systems which have struggled.

For the world’s sake to try and avoid, prevent or mitigate a future pandemic we need to learn those learns.

Q-The US Intelligence Community made up of 16 organisations stated yesterday that there is concurrence that #Covid19 virus ‘was not manmade or genetically modified’. It added it will keep on investigating whether pandemic began through contact with infected animals or a lab accident. Your thoughts.

I would prefer for that sought of work to be done by an organisation associated with the United Nations and not any particular country. If You have an international review of the global outbreak by an appropriate body, we can all be assured that the review will be open, transparent and accurate. I am not suggesting that the US would say things that are untrue. But if one country like Australia, India or US run an investigation will always have a particular finger-pointing today they are pushing an agenda. So appropriately approved international review at the right time should be undertaken.

Q- On Australia seeking return of Taiwan to WHO.

As we have seen from this current pandemic national borders did not stop the spread either for a country like Australia which is an island continent. We couldn’t avoid it coming onto our shores neither could any other country in the world. So the WHO should, particularly following SARS, Ebola and all those other epidemics, be a country that reflects every country in the world. It shouldn’t be about a country called Taiwan or India. But if you are a nation, if you have a government of some form, if you have humans living within your boundaries, you should be a part of the WHO because you are not immune to diseases and the organisation intends to help develop a response.

Q- But questions have been raised about WHO leadership and alleged leanings towards China. Several UN bodies today have Chinese nationals in leadership roles. Do you see the possibility really for doors to open for Taiwan to return?

Australia is a friend of WHO. We fund it. We will continue to fund it because of the good work we know it has done within our region. My confidence in WHO is increasing because later this year India takes chair of the organisation and that will be good for all of us when a country like India that has dealt with so many pandemics through its history is going to be chairing on a council of the WHO.

Q- With nations are becoming more tempted to use power coercively, where will checks and balances lie if no real transformation of existing multilateral organisations takes place? Is there a possibility of developing alternate mechanisms?

First of all, we should try and strengthen rules and norms that exist including in UN and organisations like WHO. We are looking at our region and we see the South China Sea. We recognise there are plans to settle some of those disputes in the region. As a country that has a great interest in not only the waterways but rules that govern transit through them, we are concerned about some of the militarism we are seeing.

In recent times we have seen sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat, interruption of oil and gas explorations of two countries in the region. That is unacceptable particularly when you have the UNCLOS which sets down certain norms and rules and requires countries to abide by. It is not acceptable when one party decides not to. The appropriate place for such matters to be resolved in my opinion will continue to be at the UN.

Q- Do you see countries like Germany, Australia, Japan, India having to play a more determined and decisive role and open up their pockets more?

Just as India plays that role within the Indian Ocean, so many countries look towards it, we also do serve roles for the Pacific. In this current time, we have enjoyed the weekly Indo-Pacific coordination calls between India, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and the US where we have been reporting on each country’s approach to Covid 19 and also discussions about the post Covid world. In that post-Covid era relationships around things like Indo-Pacific and other parts of the world will become more important.

It will potentially bring together a large range of countries seeking to ensure the Indo-Pacific does play by the usual and traditional norms and rules of international society, does embrace free and open societies that support strong economies and does turn its back on authoritarianism and rogue politics.

Q- Where does the future of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue lie which has also met at the level of External Affairs Ministers? Is there a possibility for it to expand to include a country like France with territorial presence in the Indian Ocean?

The Quad has proved to be a useful forum for like-minded democracies to coordinate on key issues like cyber terrorism, counter-terrorism, cyber and maritime security. We are delighted that last year Quad proceeded to ministerial level in a further sign of a view of the value of Quad.

Q- On India’s countrywide strict lockdown.

India has done a remarkable job in the face of this disturbing pandemic. When I arrived here in February there were apocalyptic predictions being made about this disease and impact on India. Last week noted economist Shamika Ravi states that if not for PM Modi’s national lockdown, there would be 850,000 cases of Covid across India compared to what is good in the order of 33,000. PM Modi’s early action and people’s response to this unprecedented national lockdown in a democracy has been extraordinary. It is all very easy to have lockdowns in authoritarian countries.

We saw China lock down a few provinces and a few cities. But this is a national voluntary lockdown by citizens in the world’s largest democracy. The curfew was the willingness of the public to get behind PM Modi and what we have seen has been extraordinary.

Q- What is the future of RCEP and many say It was a blessing in disguise that India did not sign up for it?

The door remains open for India to join RCEP if it wants to. There is an argument that there could be no better time for doing it than now. Australia supports India’s push to play a bigger role in global supply chains. If India was to join RCEP now it would send a signal to the world not just that India is a terrific place to invest but it has the potential to become a global manufacturing hub that the Make In India initiative seeks to achieve.

So this is a potential opportunity in crisis for India. But ultimately the decision about RCEP is for the government of India according to its own determination of its own interests.

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About Smita Sharma

Smita Sharma is a senior award winning independent journalist. She writes on foreign policy and security issues for various news organisations including ETV Bharat and Huffington Post. She was the Consulting Executive Editor for TV9 Bharatvarsh and Deputy Editor with The Tribune in the past. In more than 16 years of her journalism career she has also been a bilingual prime time anchor and foreign policy Incharge with leading TV news channels- India Today/ Aajtak/ CNN-IBN/ IBN7 and DD News. Her reportage of the Kashmir conflict in 2010 won the Ramnath Goenka Award. She is a an alumni of the Asia Pacific Centre for Security Studies (DKI-APCSS) in Hawaii.