The world after 2020

Jan 1, 2021

What a year 2020 was for Australia, with first the fires and then the pandemic. Now at the end of it, we’re still confronted with the challenges of climate change in the shape of floods, not fires, and our Prime Minister unable to get a speaking slot at an international climate change conference.

Very bad pandemic news, for example just today from the US, Europe and Korea; a really wild Presidential transition in the US; and, for us, the challenge of China’s apparently chosen tactic of coercive diplomacy via its “Global Times”.

In regard to the future, and while acknowledging the importance and roles of others, the main geo-political question is of course US-China. And a very important part of US-China

is that so many in the US see China as an existential competitor, a mortal threat, and in that competition will say and/or do nearly anything.  Many in the US will expect us to support them in that confrontational approach, and indeed to a considerable extent that is what our present and recent governments have been doing.

However, I agree with the Secretary of DFAT, Frances Adamson, who in a major speech on 25 November said inter alia that “more and more, the US has to share power”.  She said that “we have to acknowledge that the US cannot be expected to lead in the way it once did”.  But do Americans acknowledge that?  Some do.  You will recall the famous Bill Clinton quote, that the US should seek to shape a world that it will be happy to live in when it’s no longer top dog. But it’s clear that many don’t.

And, of course, China feeling its oats is not an easy country to deal with, as we are experiencing just now.  We remember its Foreign Minister, at an ASEAN plus meeting in Hanoi some years ago, saying that “you are small countries, while China is a big country”.  And in a mirror-image of the United States, many Chinese are convinced that the US is determined to keep China down, and are determined not to submit.  (China’s current treatment of us is another question, which I could say more about later.)

Anyway, the other two panellists are better qualified than I to talk about the two confronting issues of climate change and US-China.  My task is to discuss, or at least mention, other topics which will be important in the post-2020 world.  They include:—

  • the pandemic with its health requirements and associated “work from home” has promoted the increased role of the online world, including electronic data collection and use, and indeed in communications of all kinds.  Social media has become more pervasive, with its attendant fake news, “deep fakes” and “alternative facts”. The power of “big data”, and of the giant technology companies like Google and Facebook will be an issue into the future as indeed it is now, as shown by the Government’s current effort to get a share of tech company profits for Australian news media companies.  This leads us to
  • cyber generally, the “perfect weapon”, capable of doing, or preparing to do, enormous damage, but done in a covert, unattributable world, “neither war nor peace”, and thus a field for alarming, but to the public unverifiable, allegations and accusations;
  • hitherto practically unquestioned, globalisation has also been called into question, given the way in which the pandemic has exposed problems of shortages and with supply chains, and prevented the normal movement of peoples for tourism and migration. Globalisation has also been seen as a guilty party in the problems of job loss and unemployment caused—nowhere more clearly than in the United States—by out-sourcing and technological development. There is still a strong belief in the benefits including wealth and employment creation that international trade and exchanges bring, but it has become more and more clear that measures, like effective re-training, are needed to compensate for disruptions caused.
  • The pandemic has had mixed effects on views of governance and governments, depending on how effective the government in question has been. A common comment has been that in responding to the virus the important thing has not been whether a government was authoritarian or democratic, but whether it was competent.

Other governance challenges have become prominent, with the rise of populism, challenges to democratic institutions, and greater awareness of inequality and racism.  The United States’ withdrawal from positive participation in a number of international institutions of governance has also had serious effects, for example in regard to the World Trade Organisation and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and remedial actions will be necessary, not least by the United States itself.

There are also countries, or groups of countries, important both in themselves and to us, that we should think about a bit more deeply than we usually do.  Some of them are countries often spoken of as those we should seek to work with more closely given China’s assertiveness.  But that’s not so simple, and nor are the countries in question.  For example, India is often spoken of by Western leaders as sharing Western values, but its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has his political origins in the RSS, which is a right-wing Hindu society characterised by its support for a “Hindu Raj” and discrimination against India’s very large Muslim minority, and India’s tradition of non-alignment and avoiding alliances is also very strong.

Iran and North Korea are countries widely thought of in crisis terms; there are still worries about what might happen between the US and Iran, in particular, before the change of administration in the US occurs.

We believe we have good relations with Indonesia, our large and rising neighbour, but we need to be aware of the strong current of fundamentalist Islam there—and also Indonesia’s apparent suspicion of us over our alleged harbouring of West Irian independence activists, a suspicion that reportedly led to the creation by an Indonesian web team of a “fake person”, a pro-Indonesian Australian journalist who doesn’t exist!

Other significant South East Asian countries also have serious current problems—Thailand, Malaysia and The Philippines are examples—but South East Asia as a whole is a prospering, developing region, a home for investment—North Asia having come to South East Asia—and careful balancing between the US and China.  Singapore is a prime example, and Indonesia is another; the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, for example made it clear to US Secretary of State Pompeo on his recent visit there that Indonesia was not interested in joining his anti-China crusade—as a press report said, of course it wasn’t, because of China’s role as Indonesia’s most important trading partner.

Despite all this complexity, whether the world goes forward or regresses from this historic year of 2020 —assuming of course that we eventually cope with the virus—depends above all on two main issues:—whether we can get over short-termism and vested interests and tackle climate change in the same serious and effective way that we set about tackling COVID;  and whether the US and China can rise above the “dominant power—rising power” dichotomy and learn to live together.  Can the world do better with China’s rise than it did with Germany’s, 100 years ago?

As Frances Adamson said in the speech I’ve referred to, the main challenge for Australia’s foreign policy is “shaping, with other countries, a regional and global order that responds to the new realities of power”, and provides stability, prosperity, is inclusive, respects states’ rights, and “provides enduring peace”.  There are big issues of accustomed attitudes in this for us:  can and should we move away from unquestioned adherence to the US alliance?  Can China be trusted?  Can we work successfully with others in the region to set up a countervailing arrangement that doesn’t amount to an attempt at containment?   We should certainly debate these issues nationally and seriously, in the light of “the new realities” and of our interests, values and associations, aware of the difficulties and complexities while seeking to arrive at a sustainable outcome.

The above are comments made as a panelist at a December function organised by the Australian Institute of International Affairs

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