Protect the nation – or international trade?

| March 10, 2020

Health and foreign policy have been intimately connected for longer than the principle of state sovereignty itself has existed.

The recognition of the impact of trade and travel on the spread of plague was recognised with the imposition of a 40-day quarantine of ships in the 14th century, well before the Treaty of Westphalia.

The COVID-19 epidemic has since produced similar vigorous restrictions in an attempt to stall the spread of the virus. As the World Health Organization (WHO) and governments attempt to contain its spread, diplomatic tensions have emerged from health protection measures.

COVID-19 has created a tightrope that requires governments to balance between protecting their own citizens and maintaining diplomatic relationships. Some measures, like the travel restrictions imposed by over 70 countries, may have slowed the international spread of COVID-19.

But other measures, like the quarantine of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, may have amplified its spread. The implementation of policies such as travel bans seems out of place in keeping with the subtle practice of diplomacy between nation states that usually falls to the foreign affairs departments.

Despite calls from the WHO for a globally coordinated response, international approach to COVID-19 stands in sharp contrast to the 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak. Bilateral and multilateral assistance to contain Ebola came in the form of very visible ‘boots on the ground’ in West Africa.

But in 2020, governments are instead choosing to evacuate their own citizens from China with much less visible bilateral cooperation — partly perhaps due to China’s desire to demonstrate control without obvious international assistance.

This raises the question of how governments are calculating the trade-off between health protection and diplomatic relations. The answer lies in the pragmatic approaches that are required to control a transmissible virus and meet the high expectations of the state’s role in protecting the health of its own citizens.

At a pragmatic level, most health departments understand that the current epidemic is likely to become a global pandemic over time due to a basic reproduction number in excess of SARS and clear evidence that the virus can be transmitted by an individual showing few or no symptoms.

Travel restrictions can only slow the international spread of COVID-19 while the global scientific community works overtime to develop effective treatments or a vaccine.

The second driver of the health protection measures is the domestic pressure created by the fears and expectations of a nation’s own citizens. While state influence over a variety of policy arenas has diminished over time, health has remained an area where the state retains primary responsibility — a responsibility matched with the expectation that citizens will be protected from infectious diseases.

For liberal democracies, this responsibility means the spectre of punishment at the ballot boxes if health protection measures are seen to be ineffective or lax.

In Australia’s case, the regular appearance of Prime Minister Scott Morrison alongside Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy is, among other things, indicative of the importance that the Australian government places on demonstrating control and leadership during a public health emergency.

Even as an authoritarian state with a powerful bureaucracy and state-controlled media, China is struggling to project an image of control. At the end of the day, one of the biggest challenges for Chinese President Xi Jinping since coming to power may not have come from dissidents from either within or outside the Party, but from a highly adaptive virus.

The domestic pressures during a pandemic create a unique manifestation of Putnam’s seminal two-level game theory of international relations. Nations yet unaffected by COVID-19 must bow to domestic expectations and institute policies that directly affect their relationships with China and now other hotspots.

Equally, China’s diplomatic leverage to react to those policies is substantially limited by its difficulties in controlling the virus at home.

Even accounting for the precarious nature of the Australia–China relationship prior to the pandemic, it is difficult to believe that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade could have mounted many arguments that would have dissuaded the government from implementing the travel restrictions.

The typical subservience of health to foreign policy has been reversed in this epidemic. The question that remains unanswered, however, is to what extent COVID-19 will have an impact on the future of China’s relationships with the rest of the world.

This article was published by the East Asia Forum.