US Raises China's COVID-19 'Accountability', This Time at Video Call Between 7 Countries

This is the first time that United States, India, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Israel and Brazil have met in this format and at this level.

New Delhi: Foreign minister of the United States, India, Japan, Australia, South Korea, Israel and Brazil spoke through video conference on ways in which they could better respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, the US brought up the issue of “accountability” in the health crisis. 

For about an hour starting at around 4.30 pm (IST) on Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo initiated a video conference that was attended by the foreign ministers of the six other countries.

This is the first time that all these seven countries have met in this format and at this level. Last September, the Quad countries – US, India, Japan and Australia – had upgraded their level of discussions to foreign ministers, marking a “significant elevation”.

According to external affairs minister S. Jaishankar, the conversation “covered pandemic response, global health management, medical cooperation, economic recovery and travel norms”.

The state department’s readout stressed that the discussion revolved around the “importance of international cooperation, transparency, and accountability in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic and in addressing its causes”.

The reference to transparency – and especially, accountability – in US’s diplomatic language during the current COVID-19 pandemic has been about putting China on the mat for allegedly covering up the extent of the outbreak in the initial days. US President Donald Trump had last month announced that it will withdraw funding from World Health Organisation over the latter allegedly having helped Beijing in a ‘cover-up’

“They also discussed collaboration toward preventing future global health crises, reaffirming the importance of the rules-based international order,” added the press release.

There were separate read-outs of the phone call by foreign ministries of South Korea, Japan, Australia and tweets by foreign ministers of India, Brazil and Israel.

None of the others used the word ‘accountability’ in their announcements. But, Japan, South Korea and Australia did use the term ‘transparency’, but largely in terms of timely information sharing.

“Transparency & learning the lessons of this pandemic are critical to prevent future global health crises,” tweeted Australia’s department of foreign affairs and trade.

Japan’s foreign ministry said that the “foremost priority” presented by foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi was to “contain the spread of infections”.

The Japanese minister added there was “need for each country to share information and insights in a free, transparent, and timely manner” in order to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

He also noted that it was “important to tackle various challenges, bearing in mind the state of the international order after the situation winds down”.

South Korea’s foreign ministry noted that the foreign ministers agreed that “rapid and transparent information sharing” was essential to respond to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Jaishankar’ tweet had none of these telling diplomatic buzzwords. Indian government has publicly stated that the immediate priority was to combat COVID-19, and issues of accountability, can be re-visited after the crisis blows over. 

During the 70-minute discussion, the various ministers also presented their domestic strategy for containing the pandemic. There was also emphasis on the post-pandemic situation, when countries begin to emerge from their respective lockdowns and begin to slowly return to global economic networks

There is no public clarity on how the seven countries were chosen to participate in the video conference. The Japanese foreign ministry’s press release said that the call was between “interested countries”, while the US state department stated that the video conference was with “partners”.