Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation

Today Crikey introduces The Proposition — a provocation that bounces off a hot topic. Our first respondents are five Crikey regulars. And we’d love to have your responses*.

Here’s today’s proposition:

If China won’t agree to an investigation into the cause of coronavirus, should Australia be prepared to downgrade our trade relationship?

There are reasons to rethink our relationship with China, but they are human rights, not virus-related. While China’s initial handling of the outbreak reflected fragilities with its authoritarian approach to governing, the speed in which the Communist Party course-corrected was astonishing. 

Despite having the lockdown blueprint, the US, UK, Brazil and various others completely botched their handling of the crisis, which indicates that other countries would probably have done a worse job than China.

Investigating China is not merely a waste of time, it’s economically idiotic and self-defeating.

Adam Schwab, business operator and creator of The Schwab Test

Western economies took a risk when they decided to bring China into the economic fold thinking they would then be part of the rules-based order.

The World Trade Organisation and the World Health Organisation are perfect examples.

Instead China ignored those rules and exploited the democratic processes to use against the rest of the world.

Australia led the world in free trade reform and we need to continue to support it — but we must also begin to decouple economically from China as much as is practical.

— Janine Perrett, Crikey columnist, radio/TV journalist and presenter

Australia and China indulging in some rage-based voluntary protectionism at each other will principally hurt their own consumers who’ll be forced to pay more or have less choice about the goods and services they buy.

Australia’s construction sector already pays billions in higher costs because of our protectionism against Chinese steel. Why would we want to make that any worse?

There will, however, be an inevitable program of government support for local manufacturing of medical and pharmaceutical products deemed essential — with all the risks of rent-seekers and rorters — designed to ensure there’s no repeat of Australia having to go begging to China for testing equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE).

But what happens when other countries make the same decision to onshore “essential” manufacturing and it affects Australian, not Chinese, exports? We won’t exactly be in a strong position to complain.

What should be “downgraded” is the deference paid by the media to billionaire appeasers who take Beijing’s side over Australia’s because of their commercial interests. Oh, wait, some of them are the media. So much for foreign interference laws.

— Bernard Keane, Crikey’s political editor

An independent and thorough investigation of the causes and spread of the SARS-COV-2 virus is in everyone’s interests.

 China will also benefit from such a review; that is, unless you subscribe to the conspiracy theory that China deliberately engineered and released the virus – a theory our Prime Minister rejects.  

But the surest way to discourage China from supporting a review is political pressure. It would be a further mistake to link the review to trade. We have everything to lose, nothing to gain, from a trade dispute with China.  

— Stephen Bartos, Crikey columnist, consultant and former deputy secretary of the federal department of finance

As a trading nation Australia has a reputation for quality, value, and reliability, and we would be foolish to compromise on any of them for political reasons even in the event of a new cold war.

We traded directly with China at the height of the first Cold War, when the US placed a ban on trade with the PRC, and I imagine we’d do the same in the new cold war if it came to that. Then again, if there’s a hot war, all bets are off.

— John Fitzgerald, Crikey columnist, China expert, emeritus professor at Swinburne University of Technology

*Our next proposition is: the current crisis has highlighted the need to substantially cut Australia’s immigration levels, even if that hurts the economy. Tell us your thoughts by emailing a response of no more than 80 words to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication.