The past fortnight drove home the rather surreal realisation that we’re living in unprecedented times. Never before, at least in the living memory of today’s global population, has a pandemic or calamity threatened to completely upend our way of life and present an existential challenge to our livelihoods. COVID-19 does just that, and on a scale never seen before. What makes this crisis even more deadly is the vacuum of leadership on display in many nations, particularly the US, whose status as the leader of the international order is now under threat, as Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi argue.

At the time of writing, Australia has announced extensive Stage Two lockdown measures to enforce social distancing by placing restrictions on public gatherings and businesses; it’s being reported that the newly created national cabinet is preparing for Stage Three. However, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s messaging on the COVID crisis has been said to be confusing and lacking in urgency.

On the other hand, New Zealand, with fewer number of infections and deaths than Australia, has declared a four-week Stage Four lockdown, curbing all outdoor activities and businesses except for the essential services. This is leading people to draw comparisons between Morrison and Jacinda Ardern, who has been seen to be far more pro-active than her trans-Tasman counterpart. India, too, has enforced a 21-day shutdown, along similar lines as New Zealand.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the Chinese Communist Party has embarked upon a new two-pronged strategy to refashion itself as a ‘more responsible great power’, as Mira Rapp-Hooper puts it. The first element involves changing the narrative around the origins of COVID-19, denying that it started in the wet market in Wuhan, arguing that the first cases were reported in other countries. As Elise Thomas notes, China’s becoming ‘a more active and aggressive player in the Western information ecosystem’.  

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lijian Zhao even tweeted an article promoting the conspiracy theory that the virus was planted in China by visiting US military personnel in October 2019. This caused outrage in the US and led to the summoning of the Chinese ambassador by the State Department. The Chinese envoy, Cui Tiankai, has however distanced himself from Zhao’s tweet, advancing a much more cooperative and reconciliatory stance than the latter.

We’re also witnessing a Chinese diplomatic charm-offensive in which it’s applying pressure on other nations to stop calling COVID-19 as the ‘Wuhan Virus’ or ‘Chinese virus’, which Beijing attacks as being racist in connotation. However, there’s an undeniable impulse to dissociate the pandemic from its Chinese origins and the missteps of the CCP to cover it up in the first couple of months.

The second element of China’s strategy includes playing the good global Samaritan and helping other countries with medical supplies and aid to deal with the crisis. In fact, President Xi Jinping invoked the creation of a new ‘Health Silk Road’, in his telephone conversation with the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (after China sent a team of medical experts and equipment to the country). All this, while China claims to have successfully brought COVID-19 under control and is extolling the virtues of its strict measures and containment efforts.

Moving on to some not-strictly COVID related news, China expelled thirteen American journalists working for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal this fortnight, in the rapidly escalating media wars between Washington and Beijing. What began with China banishing three American journalists over an article criticising its handling of COVID-19 last month, and led to President Donald Trump placing restrictions on the number of Chinese nationals working in Chinese media outlets in the US, has culminated in the latest showdown and represents a distinctive low point in Sino-US relations.

Speaking of low point, this week China has moved proceedings against Australian academic Yang Hengjun, accusing him of espionage, despite significant Australian government efforts to secure his release. Dr Yang has now been held by Chinese authorities for over a year. Australian foreign minister Marise Payne issued a scathing statement yesterday, admonishing the Chinese government for its treatment of Dr Yang, adding, ‘Crises are a time for nations to pull together. It is not in the spirit of mutual respect and trust that our continued advocacy for Dr Yang has not been acknowledged.’

Meanwhile, North Korea also used this crisis as an opportunity to launch two short-range ballistic missiles, known as the KN24, into the Sea of Japan last week. The latest tests came close on the heels of two other tests in early March that included a ‘large-caliber close-range ballistic missile system’. These tests possibly represent a breakdown of Kim Jong Un’s patience after his announcement in December ‘that he was no longer bound by a self-imposed freeze on major weapons tests’, unless the US made ‘a more appealing offer’ to remove sanctions. More than anything, the tests reinforce the notion that trust is in unusually short supply on the global stage currently.

Crises are a time for nations to come together- Australia, with a group of other countries including Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Myanmar, New Zealand and Singapore issued a joint statement to ease trade restrictions on essential goods, and especially medical supplies during these difficult times and to commit to keeping air and seaports open ‘to support the viability and integrity of supply chains globally.’

Also, foreign secretaries and officials of the Quad nations (Australia, US, Japan, India) along with New Zealand, Vietnam and South Korea held a videoconference and have committed to cooperate on ‘vaccine development, challenges of stranded citizens, assistance to countries in need and mitigating the impact on the global economy.’ Initiated by the US government, analysts see it ‘as an attempt to keep the Quad Plus countries within a sphere on influence and strategic direction.’

Another attempt at building regional cohesion in the face of crisis was noticed in the Indo-Pacific this fortnight- that of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Last weekend, leaders and representatives of all eight SAARC nations participated in a videoconference at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss the regional response to COVID-19. The discussion led to the creation of an emergency fund to which each nation has pledged their varying contributions. India has also offered SAARC nations a rapid response team and other training to deal with the crisis.

Some analysts see this as Modi’s ‘geopolitical masterstroke’- and an attempt to unite the notoriously disintegrated nations of South Asia under India’s leadership. The prospects of such a realisation coming out of this crisis, nonetheless, may have been slightly marred by Pakistan bringing up the issue of Kashmir at the meeting, cutting to the heart of why South Asia remains the least integrated region in the world today.

Finally, Scott Morrison attended a bilateral ‘virtual summit’ with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earlier this week. Significantly, the two countries signed a Treaty on Military Training and Training Area Development to develop advanced military training facilities in two locations in Queensland, Australia. They also signed memorandums of understanding on artificial intelligence and data innovation, along with others on further cyber-security cooperation and food-safety standardisation.   

Significance for Australia

Tough times call for tough measures. Now, more than ever, Australia needs firm and decisive leadership domestically, and internationally. While the need of the hour may be social distancing, Australian policymakers would do well to remember that we still live in a globalised world and that we need to be prepared for the aftermath of this pandemic- for the economy that needs to be rebuilt, and for our relationships that need to be strengthened. The real tragedy of an America-first administration in the US is beginning to dawn upon Australians and we’re faced with the possibility of a new global order led by a country that doesn’t share our values. We need an economy less reliant upon a nation that has a propensity to leverage its influence through coercive means.

The real need of the hour, then, is to ensure that Australia strengthens its relationships with other like-minded nations in the region, particularly Japan, Indonesia and India. Australia’s deepening ties to Singapore are a real bright spot in these troubled times. Canberra should also keep working with its friends in the US and to strengthen the institutional linkages built painstakingly for more than a century. For, as Rapp-Hooper contends, ‘…it is all but guaranteed that the world will emerge from this crisis focused on how to mitigate future ones.’


Aakriti Bachhawat is a Researcher with the Defence and Strategy team at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Research Assistant at the Griffith Asia Institute.