The world as viewed by Howard and Beazley
22 Jul 2020|

Two of Australia’s most influential political figures of recent decades have delivered frank views on subjects including the likely state of the world after the Covid-19 pandemic, the possibility of a ‘hot war’ with China, the need for Australia to be able to defend itself, and the devastating strategic impact climate change could have.

Over more than 90 minutes, Walkley Award-winning journalist Stan Grant has interviewed former prime minister John Howard and Kim Beazley, governor of Western Australia, ambassador to the US for six years and onetime leader of the Labor Party in opposition.

This was the first of a series of online interviews with key Australian and international figures that, in the Covid-19 era, has replaced ASPI’s annual conference.

Howard said the Covid-19 pandemic would have an impact on the world and it had devastated the lives of many millions of people, but he said we should not ‘go overboard’ with the view that the world would never be the same. ‘I think the world will be substantially the same’, Howard said. The biggest impact was likely to be how the pandemic affected the governance of individual countries. Some countries had handled it well, he said, and others badly. ‘I think our own country has handled the pandemic extremely well.’

Howard did not think the pandemic would change the world balance of power. ‘We entered the pandemic with the great rivalry between the US and China. That is still the great rivalry.’ Howard said he did not think many of the basics of great-power rivalry would be altered. ‘We will have learned the value of international cooperation.’ He strongly rejected the view that the world was entering a post-American era.

On concerns about Taiwan and the South China Sea being potential flash points that would lead to a major conflict, Howard replied: ‘I don’t think China wants a hot war. Nobody does.’ But it would still not be easy to handle the relationship, he said. ‘Is it hard? Yes.’

Beazley held the view that there could be a ‘hot war on Taiwan’ because that was where the US had drawn a red line.

And while Howard praised some of Donald Trump’s decisions, he said the US president had not handled the pandemic well and that could have an impact on the November election.

Howard said Australia had to find a way to balance its trading relationship with a China that was more overtly aggressive in its diplomatic language and its behaviour in the South China Sea. Yes, they are authoritarian but still important to us, he said.

‘But we have to understand that. We don’t want to overreact to it, but equally we don’t want to recoil from it.’ He did not believe Australia was being dragged along by the Americans. As democracies speaking ‘more or less the same language’, the two nations had many similar interests but Australia had, over decades, made many decisions independently of Washington.

Howard noted that relations between the US and China as rival powers had been closer in the past and he implied that they could be again. He recalled a speech China’s then president, Jiang Zemin, made in English after the 2001 terrorist attacks in which he reached out to the Americans across a substantial ideological divide.

Beazley observed that educating thousands of Chinese students had not just benefited Australia’s economy. ‘We’ve given thousands of Chinese students nation-building skills through our education system’, he said. ‘We have been of enormous assistance in the growth of China.’

Howard and Beazley both supported the increase in the military capabilities of the Australian Defence Force as set out in the recent strategic update.

‘Part of being an effective middle power is having a capacity to exhibit power when needed’, Howard said. ‘You can’t do that without spending money on defence.

‘We’ve got to accept that if we are going to assert ourselves and defend our values, you have to invest in defence.’

Beazley said the Morrison government’s recent defence decisions were driven by the capabilities in the region. ‘The budget is a mess, but unless we stick to our defence plan our voice will be diminished’, he said.

‘Intentions can change overnight, but what cannot change overnight is capabilities. And if you do not have the capacity to match capabilities in the region, you’re dead!’

Beazley said it was not helpful that the US had pulled out of the Paris climate accord. ‘I completely believe in the science related to all of this.’

He warned that climate change could bring devastating impacts with substantial strategic implications. Rising sea levels could have a very great impact on China, he said. ‘Their coastal cities will be under threat. Already their river systems are drying up.’ The great rivers of Southeast and South Asia had their origins in Tibet and already China was damming them heavily. The diversion of the massive Mekong River could have a huge impact on the nations downstream.

‘They can reduce, and probably will over the next 20 years, the flow of the Mekong out through Indo-China to a trickle. If that happens there’s the most extraordinary crisis in Southeast Asia and that certainly will put people on the move.’

Increased rainfall might also increase agricultural production in northern Australia. ‘That will certainly be of interest in the region around us when that occurs.’

It was very likely that China would be hit hard by every aspect of climate change and, as global warming made areas of Alaska, Canada and northern Russia more accessible for agriculture and resource exploitation, China might well look north to territories seized from it in the 19th century. ‘When that happens, there will be an altogether different conversation between Russia and China’, Beazley said.

A video of the opening session of ASPI’s Strategic Vision 2020 conference series is available here (registration required).