Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and US President Donald Trump are upping the pressure on China. Photo: Facebook

MANILA – A de facto US-Australia alliance is seeking greater transparency and accountability for China’s role in the global Covid-19 pandemic, with Washington taking a tough tack approach and Canberra adopting a more moderate line.  

The Donald Trump administration has threatened to cutoff support to the World Health Organization (WHO) for supposedly kowtowing to China, while US congressmen ready legislation seeking reparations from Beijing for pandemic-related losses.

On Thursday, Trump said the Covid-19 was the worst disaster to hit the US since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the 9/11 terror attacks on New York. He stopped short of saying China’s role in unleashing the pandemic was an “act of war.”  

In contrast, Australia has pushed a more moderate position, seeking to establish an independent international body to investigate the origins of the pandemic in the Chinese city of Wuhan, while nudging the WHO towards internal reforms to address allegations of a pro-China bias.

The emerging “good cop, bad cop” dynamic, with Canberra nudging Beijing towards greater transparency and Washington engaging in China-bashing and legal threats, aims ultimately to pressure China into acknowledging its role in the pandemic and to build a coalition of willing allies to encircle China on the issue.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would not be drawn on what options the US is considering to protect shipping – or to punish Iran. Photo: AFP

In recent days, both US President Donald Trump and US secretary of state Mike Pompeo have relentlessly vilified China, with America’s top diplomat claiming earlier in the week that there was “enormous evidence” that the virus first leaked from virology lab in Wuhan.

He walked back the claim on Wednesday by saying we “don’t have certainty” on the lab leak theory.   

“I think they made a horrible mistake and didn’t want to admit it,” Trump said in a recent interview with Fox News, squarely placing the blame on China as the pandemic hammers the American economy and claims over 60,000 lives.

“My opinion is they made a mistake. They tried to cover it, they tried to put it out. It’s like a fire,” Trump said. “You know, it’s really like trying to put out a fire. They couldn’t put out the fire.”

The US intelligence community has shut down Pompeo and Trump’s conspiracy theories alleging China manufactured the virus, though it has not ruled out the possibility of an accidental laboratory leakage.

China has responded in kind. In a commentary entitled “Evil Pompeo is wantonly spewing poison and spreading lies”, China’s state broadcaster CCTV made an unusually aggressive commentary, which characterized the US diplomat’s statement as “insane and evasive.”

The escalating superpower tensions are raising pressure on China’s Southeast Asian neighbors, many of which have been hard hit by the virus with economic devastation to come after long lockdowns.

A woman wears a mask as a precautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus in Manila on March 13, 2020 Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

Analysts suggest Southeast Asian nations may quietly welcome Australia’s call for more Chinese transparency while more openly eschewing Trump and Pompeo’s more aggressive posturing.

In Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, leaders have been largely acquiescent by expressing gratitude for China’s symbolically delivered medical assistance and equipment to support their Covid-19 containment.

But China is arguably not doing itself any favors in the region by taking an aggressive line against Australia’s more mild call for an independent investigation into the pandemic’s origin, as many believe the information derived could help to avoid a recurrence of the epidemic.

In an interview with the Australian Financial Review, outspoken Chinese Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye described Australia’s push for greater transparency as “dangerous”, claiming that “The Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what Australia is doing now.”

Chinese Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

The envoy, who belongs to a new generation of increasingly aggressive mandarins in Beijing’s traditionally conservative bureaucracy, made a thinly veiled threat to place restrictions on Australian exports as well as Chinese student and tourists if Canberra pressed with its call for a probe.

China’s application of economic leverage to serve its strategic objectives rubs many in the region the wrong way. In the Philippines, in 2012, China placed restrictions on Philippine banana exports amid a naval standoff over a contested shoal in the South China Sea.

Various forms of Chinese economic sanctions and de facto investment freezes remained in place when Manila moved to take Beijing to international court over the maritime disputes. Mekong region countries, namely Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, sense China is using its control of the river’s upper reaches to push other regional agendas.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has made it clear that Canberra is sticking to its position for “a principled call for an independent review of the COVID-19 outbreak, an unprecedented global crisis with severe health, economic and social impacts.”

Australia is highly dependent on China economically, including as a destination for its ore and fuel exports, but many are apparently digging in in response to the Chinese envoy’s threat. Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, recently described China as a “bully.”

Michael Fullilove, the director of the influential Lowy Institute in Sydney, accused the Chinese ambassador of engaging in “wolf warrior diplomacy”, the brand of pugnacious rhetoric gaining hold among Beijing’s new generation of diplomats.

“The Chinese style of defining and putting forward its interests has changed pretty dramatically over the last several years … most notably under this new leadership in Beijing,” said David Sharma, a Liberal member of parliament.

A Chinese soldier stands guard in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Getty

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has remained cool and collected amid China’s threats, reiterating that his country’s call for Chinese Covid-19 transparency was “entirely reasonable and sensible” so that all affected nations “learn the lessons and prevent it from happening again.”

However, he may have diplomatically upped the ante by suggesting that Australia has  recruited independent investigators who could act similar to “weapons inspectors” for arms control regimes to determine the circumstances of the China-originated pandemic.

So far China has dismissed Australia’s transparency push as a sop to the Trump administration’s anti-China line. That’s been a leit motif over the years in China’s criticism of critical neighbors, from the Philippines to Japan to Australia, which often portrays them as pro-US stooges.

“Some guys are attempting to blame China for their problems and deflect the attention,” the Chinese ambassador to Australia said. “It’s a kind of pandering to the assertions that are made by some forces in Washington.”