JOHN MCCARTHY. Beyond the Pandemic

Australia can no longer rely on the US for our security shield. Australia must secure longterm multilateral structures with our south-east Asian neighbours in order to better prepare ourselves for the world after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Australian leadership is properly focused on managing the domestic effects of COVID-19. But we must also think about a changing external environment.

Middle powers are not generally prime movers in major international shifts, tending, rather, to react to changes wrought by others. But this is no reason for policy stasis.

The government is right in thinking in the short term about our Pacific neighbours and East Timor.  As the major external power, we have a moral requirement to assist these countries, as well as a strategic interest, is so doing.

We would, however, be mistaken to focus our resources solely in the immediate neighbourhood at the expense of Southeast Asia-above all Indonesia- claiming that domestic imperatives preclude help.

During the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Prime Minister Howard provided $1 billion in standby credits to Indonesia. After the tsunami in 2004, he also decided that Australia should give $1billion in a recovery package to that country.

Howard was right. The stability of Southeast Asia, above all Indonesia, is a paramount Australian national interest.

Indonesia is now facing a crisis of the same dimension as those of 1997 and  2004/5. We should respond with the same farsightedness and seek to have others –particularly-Japan, South Korea and the United States -act similarly.

Doubtless, there will be little appetite in government for such actions in Southeast Asia.

But even were we commit an additional  $4 billion to both the South Pacific and Southeast Asia over two years in both grants and soft loans, in ballpark terms this would still be less than 2% of what we have committed domestically to counter COVID-19 and about the same in real terms as the sum of our two earlier emergency commitments to Indonesia alone. If the Government, like Howard before it, were to explain its reasoning in terms of the Australian national interest, it is a fair bet that Australians would accept it.

Looking to the medium term, there is a human tendency in times of crisis to see everything changing. Not so. We still need to trade and invest. Military tensions will continue in Europe and the South China Sea. International institutions will not vanish. People will worry about Climate Change.

But the adages that history accelerates in times of crisis have validity.

  • American soft power, already squandered under Trump, has ebbed ferociously in past weeks. The divisions between China and the United States have deepened.
  • the global trend towards nationalism has intensified. The relevance of international institutions is increasingly questioned. What have the G7 and G20 done? What has happened to the Security Council?

Australia must recognize, not just intellectually but emotionally, that our American security shield is not enough.

American resilience has been underestimated in the past and could be again. Nonetheless, we have seriously to think beyond our security blanket of a dominant United States presence in the region and more towards common regional approaches to constrain and balance China. This is no easy task given the different interests of the main players and the internal dynamics of some of them, such as India. But we have to make that adjustment in our strategic thinking

And weak multilateral structures are not a reason to avoid multilateralism. COVID- 19 should not be allowed further to weaken multilateral institutions, but must rather stimulate efforts to repair them.

While Australians rightly decry the sclerotic nature of many multilateral institutions, we should remember small and middle powers need rules more than big ones.  We particularly need a good trading system. We should as a national priority work where we have the most influence, namely with like-minded democracies and regional friends, to repair the authority of global and regional institutions, the better to serve the post-COVID-19 World.

Few serious thinkers risk forecasting where COVID-19 will leave us in the longer term-say a decade hence. As Zhou Enlai is alleged (inaccurately) to have said on the impact of the French Revolution, “it is too early to tell.”

When the Soviet Union collapsed, we did not see the rise of Putin. The pundits did not guess that the GFC presaged a Trump or Brexit. Americans did not imagine that twenty years after 9/11, their troops would still be in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the COVID-19 crisis will have its own unique chain reaction, probably a massive one. The world will be different. If we as a nation are to deal effectively with the coming global changes, our leadership will have to put the same policy grunt, political energy and resources into our international dealings as into our domestic challenges.

John McCarthy has served as Australian ambassador to seven countries, including the US, Indonesia, Japan and India. 


John McCarthy has served as Australian ambassador to seven countries, including the US, Indonesia, Japan and India.

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8 Responses to JOHN MCCARTHY. Beyond the Pandemic

  1. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    The world needs to work together to address the 3 key challenges of our generation: (i) climate change, (ii) fostering inclusive and sustainable global growth, and (iii) ending the refugee crisis.

    Any overarching approach that continues to divide the world between “Us” vs “Them” will make us all less secure.

  2. Avatar J.Donegan says:

    Sir, while I believe you are correct to question ‘American resilience’, and [therefore] it would be appropriate to “…think beyond our security blanket of a dominant United States presence in the region…”, does it necessarily follow that we have to [think] “…more towards common regional approaches to constrain and balance China.”?

    In the context of our existing links with China, your use of words like ‘constrain’ and ‘balance’ imply something other than a ‘normal’ trading relationship. Consequently I would be interested to know just what you mean, because on the face of it, this sounds a lot like the “American-line”.

    Australian raw materials have been a major contributor to the ‘growth’ of China. By your use of the word ‘constrain’, do you mean that we should be contributing a good deal less, and be looking instead to regional partnerships? If so, that’s a good deal easier said than done. See for example:

    Or do you mean something else?

    If however you think that our exports to China should continue unabated (thereby contributing to its further ‘growth’), then you are in something of a logical bind – wanting to have your cake and eat it. In any event I doubt the Minerals Council of Australia want’s to constrain trade.

    As to your reference to ‘balance’, perhaps you could let us know just what you mean.

  3. Avatar Gavin O'Brien says:

    I would like to think that the Morrison Government can see beyond the Saturday Football Match fiasco to the situation existing beyond our borders, however I do not have that confidence.Their dealings with Asia since the demise of the Rudd era have been lacklustre to say the least. I totally agree that we should dump the submarine contract, bring our troops home from the military disasters in the Middle East and Afghanistan, fix up the debacle that is the NBN, given it will become indispensable when the common sense of working from a home office becomes the norm and not the exception. If anything the Pandemic has graphically shown the dangers of “Globalism”. Maybe it is time we started to reinvent sustainable local industries, so as to ensure we avoid shortages of pharmaceuticals and other essential goods.We have grown far too dependent on overseas suppliers and the ‘just in time’ philosophy of doing business.
    The post Pandemic world will be a lot different to what we have known.Now is the time to plan, not as has been the case so far, wait and see. Alison’s suggestion of a Post Pandemic Reconstruction Commission makes a lot of sense, but with a neoliberal administration, with a shortsighted view of the world, still thinking of a return to “normal’ (what??). I will not be holding my breath.

  4. Avatar Richard Ure says:

    Does this mean more submarines? If we had them now, would they have helped in the current emergency?

    Would having NBN 1.0 have been more useful?

  5. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    This makes a great deal of sense to this US-watcher.

  6. Avatar michael lacey says:

    We have an economic system that collapses on a trigger!
    In 200o we had the dot com bubble ; then we had the sub prime mortgage bubble in 2008/9 ; then we get the virus in 2020!

    They are not the causes of our problem our problem is systemic! You want a secure country get rid of the economics that causes it neoliberalism! Our security and indeed those around us is a sustainable economic system that is not based on exploiting others and rewarding a few.


    Regarding this statement:

    “During the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Prime Minister Howard provided $1 billion in standby credits to Indonesia. After the tsunami in 2004, he also decided that Australia should give $1billion in a recovery package to that country. Howard was right. The stability of Southeast Asia, above all Indonesia, is a paramount Australian national interest”.

    I doubt that Howard should be credited with the above. It was the quality of the advice he was receiving, which is lacking today. Howard at least took the advice.

    We live in a region which we cannot escape from and to some extent we will have a similar fate. But I would oppose bilateral packages of budgetary support. Most are well beyond Indonesia’s situation in the 1960s when Mick Shann would be constantly running off to Amsterdam or The Hague to attend the financial group monitoring Indonesia’s balance of payments.

    The way to overcome the disenchantment with multilateral institutions is to come up with ideas as to how their mechanisms can be utilised to deal with the very real problems which will face the region post-Covin-19. That is, the Asian Development Bank, the IMF, the World Bank, and not least the WTO. These all need revivification. Australia and a group of middle powers, including regional ones, should provide the drive, and where the US and satisfied European powers want to apply the breaks, embarrass them by showing up their old world thinking and preoccupations. For now, forget the US. Australia could look relevant (that would be a change), with relevant thinking, and policy ideas, and manifest its real destiny as a good international citizen.

  8. Alison Broinowski Alison Broinowski says:

    John fills the gap in our self-centred discussion of this crisis by reminding Australia of what faces our neighbours, particularly Indonesia. It is in our interests and their that we help in all the ways we can. As for Australia, we should now be setting up not only a Senate oversight mechanism, but a Post-pandemic Reconstruction Commission as we did after WWII to direct our recovery. It could consider scrapping the submarine contract and all our overseas military deployments, for a start.

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