Coronavirus has exposed Australia’s double standards,
Canberra’s muted reaction to the discovery of a new Covid-19
variant in the UK stands in stark contrast to its ban on travellers
from China in February 2020.
It also reveals the unacknowledged racism that still lingers at the
core of Australian policy decision making, says Daryl Guppy.
Published: 5:00am, 14 Jan, 2021. SCMP.
It was September 20 when a new variant of Covid-19 was first
identified in the English county of Kent. Yet public
this highly transmissible new strain did not come from Britain’s
health secretary, Matt Hancock, until December 14. Had this
happened in China, Western media outlets would have been quick to
allege a “cover-up” – but in the event, the UK’s almost three-month
delay in notifying the world went largely unremarked upon by much
of the West, including Australia. This double standard could be
explained away in political terms. China is considered unfriendly,
so for many in the Australian media, much of what China does is
seen as part of a dark security conspiracy. Britain, on the other
hand, is on “our” side, so we are more tolerant of its errors and
omissions. It is OK for the UK to be “learning about it as we go”,
asOk British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said of the
Such duplicity harks back to Australia’s colonial past as a
European outpost in Asia. It is a heritage that has more than a
hint of racism at its core, which increasingly pervades the
strategic framework of Australian foreign policy in the region and
has been borne out by the country’s reaction to the new UK strain.
Despite this new variant being highly infectious, Australia has
still not banned travellers from Britain – a full month after the
UK health secretary finally acknowledged the strain’s
Indeed, it was only last week that the Australian national cabinet
belatedly decided to impose preflight coronavirus testing on
passengers coming from the UK.
Australia now has an increasing number of cases of the UK Covid-19
variant, some of which are contained in quarantine facilities for
returning travellers. At least two infections are in the community,
however, and triggered a three-day lockdown of Brisbane,
Queensland’s capital. Few have questioned the efficacy of so short
a lockdown to control a virus that has a 10- to 14-day incubation
Australia’s muted response to the new UK variant stands in strong
contrast to how it reacted in the early days of the Covid-19
outbreak. On February 1, the country quickly banned foreign
nationals on flights from mainland China, including those in
mid-air, just one week after Wuhan had gone into lockdown. It was
not until March that travellers from Italy were banned. By April it
was clear that the United States was well on its way to becoming
the epicentre of the pandemic, yet travellers from that country
were still allowed in. And throughout the year, Australian
citizens, residents and their immediate family members have been
able to arrive in the country from Britain, despite its surging
The restrictions on those travellers coming from mainland China,
however, have continued all through 2020, and are yet to be lifted.
China – and other observers in Asia – have watched all this with a
degree of resignation, because it is a continuation of a policy
approach that has seen Australia revert to its colonial past.
For a brief time before the turn of the millennium, under former
prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, Australia’s foreign
policy moved towards the country’s integration with Asia as an
The creation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (Apec)
was largely an Australian initiative, but not one dominated by
Australia. Subsequent leadership changes shifted the focus as the
country came to believe it played an important leadership role in
advancing Western values in Asia. Infamously, and with no hint of
hubris, former Prime Minister John Howard accepted then-US
President George W Bush’s description in 2003 of Australia as a
“sheriff” of Asia. By 2018, the language of a Western rules-based
global order and the denial of governance legitimacy to those who
did not uphold democratic ideals began to pervade discussions by
former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, and more recently Australia’s
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds.
To his credit, current Prime Minister Scott Morrison declined to
fully sign up to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 2019 call for
a clash of civilisations, but nor was there an outright rejection
of this philosophy.
The return to a quasi-colonial outlook is reflected in Australia’s
rejection of the UN motion condemning Britain’s occupation of the
Chagos Islands. Part of this colonial possession – the island of
Diego Garcia – was gifted by the UK to the US in 1970. Australia
was one of six countries to vote against the UN resolution. Most
recently, in February last year, Australia quietly announced plans
to effectively militarise another UK colonial gift, the Cocos
(Keeling) Islands, so that the airfield there can support the
deployment of Boeing P8-A Poseidon aircraft.
This anachronistic outlook is also reflected in the country’s
increasing tendency to scold others in the region and tell them
what they must do.
Rather than accept development assistance from China, Pacific
island nations are pressured to reject it and, by implication,
learn to live with poor infrastructure and inadequate facilities.
Australia’s Pacific Step-up policy, first announced in 2016, is
more about preventing aid from China than it is about matching the
need for development assistance.
Unlike New Zealand, which has delivered widespread vaccine
assistance to Pacific nations, Australia has been the first to warn
others in Asia of the dangers of China’s vaccine diplomacy. Does it
really mean that countries like Indonesia should reject Beijing’s
assistance? Perhaps not, but these warnings do not come with
alternatives. These unconscious features of Australia’s strategic
policy approach to Asia and the specifics of its policy action,
such as the refusal to ban UK travellers, reflect this outlook.
Certainly officers of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and
Trade do not see themselves in a quasi-colonial role, but such is
often the real impact of the country’s policy decisions.
The decision not to ban travellers from Britain clearly signals
that Canberra continues to apply one set of rules to one group, and
another set to Asia. This undermines not only Australia’s already
poor relations with China, but also its ties with the rest of the
continent. Despite what Australia proclaims, for many in the
region, it is clear that unacknowledged racism still lingers at the
core of Australian policy decision making. The UK Covid-19 variant
has tested Australia’s foreign policy integrity in Asia, and the
country has been found wanting.
Daryl Guppy is a financial market and political analyst based in
Australia and working in China and Singapore. Author of many books,
he provides China engagement support for government and companies.
He serves on the Australia China Business Council and the Silk Road
Chamber of International Commerce.