Two leading strategic studies experts outline the national security implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cascading strategic shocks

Professor Rory Medcalf

The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered cascading strategic shocks for Australia.

Initially, the hope was that this global public health crisis would compel nations to reduce strategic rivalry and focus on the common good. Instead, we have seen a troubling acceleration of existing trends of great-power competition, not only between China and the United States but also between, for instance, China and India, where there has been loss of life and sustained military tension along their disputed border.

The tragedy is that, instead of recognising the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity for cooperation, China has used this window of disruption to double down on its hyper-nationalist policies of assertiveness and authoritarian control, for instance inflicting economic coercion on Australia.

The good news is that Australia has not been passive or fatalistic during this time of global turmoil. The pandemic is stress-testing our nation and our Federation, no question. But, it is also building political and public support for a process of firming up national resilience that had been underway for some years.

On supply chains – fuel security, critical technologies and countering foreign interference – we’ve seen progress towards a more whole-of-nation approach to security this year. And, despite the hit to our economy, our willingness to invest in military capability and to take the initiative with activist diplomacy is striking. It’s disappointing, though, that our diplomacy is not receiving the resources boost it needs.

The shockwaves of the pandemic are playing out across Australia’s Indo-Pacific region. All nations are seeking to do more with less, and this places a premium on partnership. In face of Chinese domineering and American dysfunction, Australia is driving the establishment of coalitions of middle powers, seeking safety in numbers and creating a context of respect for sovereignty and rules.

But diplomacy alone is not the solution. We are in for a dangerous decade.

Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Ballarat and USS America. Photo: U.S. Navy/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Possible great power war

Professor John Blaxland

In 2019, the overlapping concerns arising from great power contestation, looming environmental catastrophe and a spectrum of governance challenges prompted me to write a Geostrategic SWOT Analysis for Australia. Events in 2020 relating to the COVID-19 pandemic (and the fires earlier) have reinforced the trend in all three domains.

China’s assertiveness and wolf-warrior diplomacy has accelerated and US bellicose rhetoric has spiked, in part in response and also as a consequence, it seems, of acute domestic societal problems linked to the pandemic and more. The thought of great power war seems more possible now than since the dark days of the Cold War. Yet our society is not resilient – with cyber, fuel and other vulnerabilities arising from neo-liberal economics, just-in-time business models and “she’ll be right, mate” attitudes.

In terms of the environment, problems relating to climate change at home and abroad have been exacerbated by the pandemic and have generated knock-on economic disruption the likes of which we have not witnessed in a century. Resourcing an effective response to climate change, the pandemic and an X factor of what’s next requires fresh innovations.

Meanwhile, governance challenges have escalated dramatically as well, not just in the streets of US cities, but across the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. Confidence in institutions of state has been undermined significantly and unemployment has spiked to levels the likes of which we have never experienced in most of our lifetimes. As a wealthy neighbour, with a stake in the region’s stability and security, Australia needs to do more to help.

These challenges are of such a magnitude that no one government agency, academic discipline or international institution is postured to respond holistically.

The emergence of a National Cabinet is positive, but more needs to be done beyond short-term responses. A National Institute for Net Assessment, or NINA, looking to bolster resilience and assess holistically the spectrum of challenges to face not just the immediate crises but the inter-generational challenges, could help and ANU should lead in this.

In addition, we should look to establish an Australian universal scheme for national and community service, or AUSNACS. It could bolster the ranks of the state and federal bodies like the armed forces, police services, as well as fire, emergency and medical services, while reinforcing social cohesion in our multicultural land.

The scheme would need National Cabinet endorsement and could be based on incentivised voluntary engagement. It could help address unemployment, channel resources to address environmental concerns, and bolster the ability of society to respond to the next wave of environmental disasters, while mitigating the risks associated with great power contestation – effectively bolstering national resilience.

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