The recent events surrounding the COVID-19 crisis have shown that the continual forces of geopolitical competition have not, at least temporarily, been quelled.
Last month, the Morrison government called for an independent investigation into the origins and initial spread of COVID-19, which has garnered international support from an array of international partners. This has provoked a hostile and confrontational response from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with Beijing accusing Canberra of “ideological bias and political games”, and the Chinese Ambassador in Canberra accusing Australia of acting as a “parrot”, through “simply follow[ing] them [the US] in staging political attacks on China".
However, even as the CCP and President Xi have ultimately conceded support for a World Health Organization (WHO) resolution for an investigation into the COVID-19 pandemic, pushed for by the EU, China has still pressed ahead with ‘punishing’ 80 per cent tariffs on Australian barley exports. This may present itself as the launch, or possible continuation of a major deterioration of Beijing-Canberra relations, while jeopardising Australia’s geopolitical and economic strength.
While the full effects of COVID-19 are yet to be seen in the international arena, amongst global powers some predictions have arisen of a post-COVID-19 China. They include China as developing more assertive and possibly aggressive tendencies in the pursuit of its foreign policy objectives. This highlights a further rapid movement away from the US-led ‘global rules-based’ order, towards the ‘state’ as the dominant figure in international relations. Such a movement away already be seen by China’s assertiveness in its response to claims of Japanese sovereignty in the East China Sea and China’s Premier Li Keqiang’s omission of the word ‘peaceful’ when referring to Beijing’s desire to reunify with Taiwan. It may also be seen by China’s increased militarisation of the Taiwanese Straits with fighter jets and naval vessels approaching the island and close proximity drills. Not to mention China’s implementation of a controversial national security law in Hong Kong which poses a threat to the current ‘One Country Two Systems’ principle, flaring pro-democracy riots that have dominated Hong Kong in the past year.
But what does this mean for Australia?
Tensions are on the rise between Australia and China with recent threats of economic coercion, particularly in the areas of tourism and tertiary education. It is therefore “imperative” that Australia finds new ways to continue strengthening and diversifying its strategic relationships in the Asia-Pacific.
Two nations are critical to this success, India and Japan.
In recent years, trilateral relations between Canberra, New Delhi and Tokyo have seen a steady solidification with Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper labelling Australia’s continual pursuit of “growing strategic collaboration” between the three powers.
What may become strategically important in a post-COVID-19 Indo-Pacific region is a push towards the expansion and development of ‘Quad’, (the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’) between Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. Such a development could bring together four maritime democracies together in providing a possible counterbalance to Chinese assertiveness. It could also provide an alternative partnership focused on transparency between countries, while assisting Australia in developing deeper levels of defence and security mutual cooperation in the region.
Australian-Indian relations have significantly strengthened with the signing of a maritime declaration. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne stated this marks “a major step forward in [our] security and defence relationship”. At a recent virtual summit, both states committed further interest in developing new economic partnerships and trade deals which offer a new and rapidly expanding market for Australian exports. “We aspire to achieve new heights in our collaboration” (Narendra Modi).
Similarly, Australian-Japanese relations remain strong, with Japan’s status listed by the Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as “ [Australia’s] closest and most mature in Asia”.
Although the U.S. is overcome with increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections and a total death count steadily approaching 130,000 as of 4 July, pressing for further multilateral cooperation alongside the U.S. would enhance Australia’s regional security interests, and may also limit perceived Australian vulnerability in the region. This is despite President Trump’s notable disdain for global institutions even amongst the pandemic, such as blaming the WHO for covering up the COVID-19 crisis and ultimately halting U.S. funding,
Even without U.S. participation, the opportunity to engage in the region independently without perceived Australian reliance on the U.S. could foster Australia’s own position alongside two major regional powers. It also allows for greater advancements towards deepening relationships focused on trade and economic partnerships, to offset potential Chinese aggression to both Australian economic and military security.
With Morrison’s solid support from the international community during the COVID-19 pandemic, including from India and Japan, this appeal to multilateralism may provide a gateway for Australia to enhance its security and expand its trilateral relations in the region. Australia’s call for cooperation in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly strengthened Australia’s position in the geopolitical arena as a middle-power with a strong interest in multilateralism. With an increasingly assertive China, this approach to dealing with regional issues by developing trilateral relations with India and Japan may be a strong path forward in Australia’s regional interests.
Damian Privitera is studying a Bachelor of International Studies (Global Security) at RMIT University in Melbourne.