JOHN MCCARTHY. Beyond the Pandemic

Apr 7, 2020

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. 

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