8 April 2020
A note to readers:
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COVID-19 has caused upheaval in all countries but it has been met by a destructive display of global disunity. Aside from scientists, who thankfully continue to collaborate across national boundaries on a medical breakthrough, states and their leaders have turned inwards. A G7 foreign ministers’ meeting failed to produce a joint statement on COVID-19 because countries opposed the United States’ insistence on referring to it as the “Wuhan virus”. The G20, which coordinated an international response to the global financial crisis in 2009, achieved little at a recent crisis summit. The world’s most powerful leader, Donald Trump, is an instinctive nativist who rejects multilateralism; its second-most powerful leader, Xi Jinping, has adopted an increasingly repressive and secretive brand of authoritarianism.
In this crisis, Australia does not face a choice between following the lead of China or the United States. Neither is offering a reliable path to recovery. Instead, Australia must choose between accepting or resisting this global leadership vacuum. Canberra has already moved quickly to introduce previously unthinkable changes to domestic policy, such as paying the wages of millions of workers and merging public and private hospital systems. Now, it needs to adopt a brave and proactive foreign policy, aimed at unifying responses to the region’s urgent challenges.
Australia, for instance, has begun delivering crucial food and medical supplies to Pacific island nations. This has been logistically difficult, particularly as travel is restricted. China, too, is providing support, as are New Zealand and the World Bank. Other major Pacific donors, such as Japan, the United States and the European Union, will presumably offer aid when they can. But this effort would be far more effective if donors worked together. Pacific countries will also need funds to prop up their economies. As Jonathan Pryke from the Lowy Institute has argued, Canberra should try to coordinate this, potentially by working towards the creation of a Pacific development bank that would involve loans from Australia, China and bodies such as the International Monetary Fund.
Australia should also act to ensure the current closures of international borders are temporary and do not give rise to increased nationalism or protectionism. When the pandemic ends, governments will want to secure their supply chains so that vital goods are available and their economies remain active in the event of future crises. But this could lead to a dangerous wave of protectionism that would slow or prevent a global recovery. It would also weaken commercial links between states, which could damage political ties and lead to increased rivalries and confrontations. Attempts to control supply chains would have a particularly harsh impact in Asia, where low-cost manufacturing countries such as China, India, Taiwan and Vietnam could face serious turmoil. Again, Australia should help to oversee this shift to a more cautious trading world, to ensure that countries move towards self-sufficiency within internationally agreed limits.
This crisis is having far-reaching effects on economic, political, health and humanitarian systems. The world’s wealthiest and strongest countries are proving unwilling, unable or ill-suited to coordinate mutually beneficial responses. Australia and others will need to work around them, or without them, particularly to achieve effective responses targeted at specific regions. But this effort will not happen of its own accord. Individual countries – ideally, relatively healthy and wealthy democracies that are best-placed to withstand the coming social and economic pressures – will need to step up and lead.