After Covid-19: Australia, the region and multilateralism

Australia has enormous opportunities to influence the world for good, in ways that advance our wellbeing, security and prosperity. That’s the most striking message from ASPI’s new collection of ‘After Covid’ articles and policy proposals, whether the writers are looking at multilateralism, the Korean peninsula, Australia–India or Australia–Japan relations, women in national security, or the Bangsamoro peace process in the southern Philippines.

The other clear message is that Australia needs to think big to take up those opportunities. Simply accelerating or continuing current policies and engagement won’t produce the results we want. Waiting for others to define a post-Covid-19 agenda for us, whether that’s the United Nations, Washington, Delhi, Tokyo or Brussels, just won’t work, because everyone is groping about in search of solutions.

Notably, in several areas, Australians have done at least as much thinking about this as anyone else on the planet. It turns out that we aren’t bad at navigating concurrent crises and making decisions that attract domestic and international support. Australia’s policy and influence can help lead debates and decisions, just as we have in China policy and in technology policy, particularly with 5G and countering foreign interference.

This volume shows us that Australia is entering a more disorderly, poorer world where there’s a real risk of nations and peoples turning inward and hoping that big problems—such as intense China–US struggles over strategic, economic and technological power—will go away without anyone having to make hard choices; that, if we just wait, we can get back to business as usual. That won’t work. The risk of military conflict between the world’s two big powers, involving US allies such as Australia and Japan, will be greater in coming months and years than at most times since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

The authors of these papers have set out many examples of successful actions and decisions by partnerships of leaders and nations other than the ‘big two’. Some, such as the World Health Assembly agreement to have an independent inquiry into the global pandemic and its causes, resulted from successful multilateral diplomacy and engagement by Australia and others, notably the EU, but also African and Asian partners.

This volume sketches an enormous canvas for Australian policymakers.

The ambition required from our leaders and policymakers in politics, business, academia and civil society is equally enormous, but it’s essential, given what’s at stake. Putting human security and the aspirations of our region in the centre of our Pacific policy is possible and achievable and is the key to the deeper security and social and economic integration of our Pacific family.

It’s also possible, with partners, to bend ASEAN’s technological and economic integration away from the easy default path of comprehensively buying into Beijing’s techno-surveillance model of ‘prosperity’. We can help to do that by seizing opportunities to work on much broader political, security, technological and economic levels with Delhi, Tokyo, Seoul, Brussels and London. Those partnerships will also power Australia’s influence and engagement in international forums, whether the East Asia Summit, ASEAN or the UN.

Maybe the central agenda in all this is captured best by the idea that success for Australia will come from demonstrating competence in the pandemic, but also in the turbulent world following it. Doing so, as Caitlin Byrne puts it, requires us to be expert, starting at home.

Underlying all the new international opportunity for Australia is an urgent need to be as competent, expert and ambitious in domestic policy as we’ve shown we can be on the global stage. And that means thinking bigger than a newly painted but old agenda for our economy based on deregulation, tax cuts and spending restraint once the peak of the Covid-19 crisis is over. That’s because the global economy and international system have been changed by the pandemic.

Our ambitions to create energetic international partnerships with like-minded nations and groups on security, human rights, technology and economics require a national approach that’s equally creative and vibrant and necessitate our engagement with multilateral organisations and processes. That means breaking stale old federal–state positioning and politics. We need to use the billions of dollars that are going to be spent trying to kickstart Australia’s economy in ways that align with the directions our writers have identified.

So, the Pacific step-up will be turbocharged through greater understanding of and investment in human security, which may open the door to more opportunities for Australian investment, business and people-to-people links. Supply-chain vulnerabilities for India, Japan, the EU and Australia can be overcome through combined public–private investments that create new enterprises and new partnerships throughout our economies, as long as our leaders resist siren calls to resurrect protected industries in each of our nations.

And the pandemic has demonstrated even further the potential for state-sponsored and -derived technologies (such as high-tech surveillance systems and e-commerce platforms) to change the nature of state–citizen interactions in ways that simultaneously reduce people’s freedom and states’ sovereignty if those technologies are adopted uncritically. That opens opportunities for partnership with others facing the challenges of building digitally based economies while protecting social and political freedom.

That’s a dizzying array of policy directions, but they’re all bounded by two ideas: what we do here in Australia helps set the foundation and direction of our global and bilateral partnerships, and what we do internationally can change global directions.