There is much speculation about what the post-COVID-19 world will look like but we do not have answers and can only ask questions at this stage.
While it is far too early to provide answers, we can perhaps identify some of the questions Australia will have to ask about a post-Covid-19 world. We can divide these roughly into political, economic and international but there are connections amongst the three. I will look at the foreign relations aspects of Australia. The domestic political and economic questions have to do with what changes will be forced on us when the crisis is over and will we just snap back as the Prime Minister wants us to do. Much the same applies internationally except that there a lot more there that is out of our control.
In a post-Covid-19 world, the basic situation will remain as always a trade-off between what we want and what we can get. It looks very likely that the world will have changed in ways that affect what we can get or, put it another way, what the world imposes on us. Such evidence as we have, suggests that what our government and opposition want will remain much the same: trade and security. The virus has struck an obvious blow against globalisation as countries struggle to contain the disease. So will we spring back to the old systems or will the failure of the market economy to deal with this pandemic flow on to nervousness about losing control over borders? We don’t yet know although Europe suggests fragmentation and new alliances are distinctly possible. Our great and powerful friends in Europe and the USA have not emerged well so far. What about Russia and India? Clearly the answers have important implications for Australia.
Will our preoccupation with security and the need for protection by a great and powerful friend be affected? So far, the Government has made it clear that it wants things to remain the same. The Foreign Minister assured the US Secretary of State that the alliance was secure, Peter Dutton got the virus in the USA while attending a meeting and we did not impose the same restrictions on travel from the USA as we did on China despite the situation there being as bad or worse than in China. Presumably, the Government wants that relationship to snap back or indeed not to change.
The Australian media has largely continued its fascination with and reporting on Europe and the USA to the exclusion of Asia except for negative reporting on China and more recently Indonesia. There are two questions here. Will the Australian public lose faith in the competence of the USA because of its poor handling of the crisis even if Trump is not reelected? If so, how will this affect the political response? Perhaps even more important, what sort of a country will the US be after the panic is over. Americans believe they have a mission to save the world but if they can’t save themselves will they retreat into their shell or become aggressive? Will the country be fatally weakened or bounce back? Can we count on their support? This remains unclear. What is clear at the moment is that the major issue for Sino-US relations has emerged as one of confrontation and point-scoring.
Neither is in a position to cast the first stone but both are throwing a whole bag full of stones. China failed dismally to crack down on the virus as soon as it was identified and tried to pretend it was not happening. Trump did much the same. China seems to have been quicker to recognise the error of its ways but the US much slower. However, China seems to be emerging faster and in a position to claim the economic and strategic high ground even if its attempts to claim the moral high ground are seen by most as a complete sham. Where this will all end up is not clear. Will the US remain in Asia? Will a new cold war emerge that poses very difficult choices for Australia? Confrontation looks like the most likely result so how will others respond? Has the USA lost soft power and what about China? Who will support whom and will there be a growth in non-alignment?
Asia has been a mixed bag. Counties like Singapore and South Korea have been the role models while Indonesia has been a disaster while the Philippines has not done well either. Malaysia and Thailand are somewhere in the middle. India is not looking good. Pacific islands will pose a particular problem for Australia as climate change and the virus combine. It is not just authoritarian regimes that have made a mess of things but also some democracies. There seems to be little correlation between authoritarian regimes and democracies in their handling of the crisis. It is more about being prepared and acting quickly. Democracies are ill-equipped to do either of these although some have managed to do so.
Journalists and academics are having a field day speculating on how the brave new world will look but we don’t have answers to the important questions so speculation is just that. We will have to wait to get meaningful answers.
Cavan Hogue is a former diplomat who has worked in Asia, Europe and the Americas as well as at the UN. He also worked at ANU and Macquarie universities.