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Soft power and hard realities: The case for Australian-led development throughout the Indo-Pacific in the wake of COVID-19

Australia’s humanitarian involvement with our neighbours in the Indo-Pacific had been experiencing a “decline in real terms” well prior to the onset of COVID-19, and with countries now being shuttered around the world, it appears that without a concerted effort the enduring status quo will be one of worsening isolationism. This trend, however, has been bucked by China, who is leveraging its strength during this time as a tool to spearhead a new agenda in Asia. As a middle power, Australia has the opportunity to also engage proactively in the region, not only because of the pressing needs of our neighbours but in a realpolitik sense to cultivate our own standing in a region that is seeing a changing of the American guard.

At first glance, the Australian Government’s commitment to increase its humanitarian aid budget to $500 million through 2020-2021 appears to be a proactive response to support those of our neighbours who are grappling with both COVID-19 and increased vulnerability to climate change. However, realistic concerns have been raised by organisations such as the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), who have argued that this is going to be sourced from our current Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) budget. As of 2018, this budget was $3.1 billion, or 0.23% of our Gross National Income (GNI), and is expected to fall to 0.19% by 2021-2022, far below the OECD nation average, as well as the UN commitment of 0.7%. This gradual reprioritisation of our international obligations is resulting in a worrying “race to the bottom”, whereby Australia’s decline in aid spending is matched only by a corresponding slump in our international standing. In fact, on current trends, 2020-2021 is expected to conclude with Australia’s aid spending languishing in the bottom third of OECD countries.

Soft Power Fluctuations

We are not the only nation to be disengaging from the region. A 2019 report entitled ‘Soft Power 30’ – a global ranking metric of soft power using objective data and international polling – revealed that the US has continued to decline year-on-year, falling from 1st place in 2016, to 5th by 2019. This has been attributed to the transactional worldview of the Trump administration, and its reliance on hard power mechanisms such as trade tariffs. Partially explaining the rapid fall in rankings, the report stated of these US findings: “While no single president can wipe out the wealth of soft power assets that the US has built up over decades, they can still make an impact through rhetoric and policy alone.

Both of these indicators are juxtaposed with research by AidData that showed, as of the close of 2019, President Xi Jinping had doubled China’s foreign affairs budget in six years from 30 billion to 60 blllion yuan ($8.5 billion) in an attempt to bolster its global diplomatic efforts. And yet, extensive research conducted by HAG, ICVA, ICRG, et al. into the structure and outcomes of China’s humanitarian aid showed that their relatively small amount of funding to humanitarian crises (approximately 1.7% of their overall aid budget) leaves the door open for increased funding opportunities, or a larger role for traditional actors such as Australia.

However, this was altered by the rapid onset of COVID-19, a pandemic that has not only recast global response chains but also global perceptions. According to The Guardian, “Across Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, views of the US handling of the coronavirus crisis are uniformly negative and range from horror through derision to sympathy.” While the prototypical ideal of American prowess in times of crisis has waned, global chagrin has also served to distract from China’s mishandling of the initial crisis, allowing the Asian power to capitalise on the power vacuum that is opening up throughout the world due to American absence. Such sentiments were also confirmed domestically, with a recent Lowy Institute poll of public attitudes within Australia finding that 37% of respondents believed China would exit the pandemic stronger than before, while only 6% believed the same of the US. It is also worth noting that, as American commentator Richard Haass states, “Covid-19 will not so much change the basic direction of world history as accelerate it”. This begs the question, if the shifting geopolitical zeitgeist is only gaining momentum in regions like the Indo-Pacific, where does this leave Australia?

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The Rise of the Middle Powers

The answer to our future role in the Indo-Pacific lies in our ability to capitalise on our middle power status and bring forward policies of substance that both support those of our neighbours who are urgently in need, and maintain the balance of power (changing though it might be). Australia is also a steady hand that can help coordinate activities with those nations already active in responding to the crisis. However, such efforts must be conducted clearly, as recent events – such as when an Australian relief plane was unable to land due to the presence of a Chinese plane also delivering medical supplies – highlight the importance of heeding other countries’ various response mechanisms (and in the case of China, their more “ad hoc” contributions).

An article produced by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) further noted the important role middle powers could play during this time of upheaval, however they remarked that at present “Australia lacks heft”. This slight seems justified considering Australia’s history as a partner to its neighbours in the Pacific. Despite Scott Morrison’s enhanced ‘Pacific Step Up’ and his assertions that his government “is returning the Pacific to where it should be: front and centre of Australia’s strategic outlook,” we have refused to stop using Kyoto ‘carryover credits’ to meet our Paris targets, and continued endorsing and approving new fossil-fuel projects.

This parochial policy focus ensures Australia’s further decline in soft power and general influence in the region. As Graeme Smith – research fellow at Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific – argued, while Australia has shifted its humanitarian budget to focus more on the Pacific, our lack of commitment on climate change entirely undoes any good will. Indeed, Tuvalu’s former Prime Minister has also asserted that while he respects Australia’s financial support, the priority is decisive action being taken to reduce emissions, illustrating the gulf that exists between Australia’s own rhetoric and actual policy outcomes.

Beyond a Zero-Sum Humanitarian Approach

While these policies remain at odds with our Pacific neighbours, this gives us an insight into how we can recalibrate, and the pandemic gives us the opportunity to do so, by heeding the concerns of our neighbours and responding in a meaningful way. The most recent COVID-19 relief package included Australia’s ‘Partnerships for Recovery’ plan, which will supply $280 million to Pacific nations, and was intended to support regional health security, and economic recovery/stability. Unfortunately, this again will see funds “inevitably” withdrawn from other programs in the foreign aid budget. Such a zero-sum approach to humanitarian support is set to weaken those most volatile areas of the Pacific that we routinely pledge to support.

Southeast Asia in particular is one of the most at-risk regions, due to high population density (making social distancing virtually impossible), as well as being home to large numbers of refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), stateless people, and unreported migrants. Problems of infection and transmission are heightened by their limited access to medical facilities and it is vital that Australian engagement in the region involve contributing healthcare assistance, including support with personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and the supply of a future vaccine.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) recommended concrete steps that would involve offering test kits to nations such as Indonesia, who face the virus with one of the largest populations in the world, the lowest testing ratios, and approximately 12 hospital beds per 10,000 people. Donations of protective equipment and kits supplied by China are not sufficient to meet such largescale demand, and economic measures alone (such as the much lauded Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership [RCEP] free trade agreement that Australia recently entered into) will not protect those who are currently suffering due to the virus.

Furthermore, Australia should be attempting to share its knowledge of best practices in detecting the virus, containing the number of infections, treating infected people and research of the virus with countries who lack the capacity to conduct their own, or develop a vaccine. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is one such domestic organisation that could be coordinating with overseas health agencies in the mutual search for treatments and vaccines. In line with this, Australia should focus on prioritising South East Asia’s technological and scientific development, helping to increase countries’ resilience to and preparedness for future challenges. This would foster equal access to technology, education, and economic activities, and by leading this global response would re-position Australia in the jigsaw of the Indo-Pacific; supplying solutions that are equitable for all vulnerable groups across the region.

Fear of viral transmission and infection has forced nations around the world to close off to their neighbours, with an accompanying inward policy focus that is predicated upon sovereignty and support for one’s own citizens. Yet despite this rationale, wealthy, developed nations such as Australia cannot rely on the great powers to carry the burden of aid and humanitarian support (and decrying their efforts when they fail to do so). This is no time for “policy stasis” on our end. Australia may not have the reach of China, but as a major regional power, it is a hard reality that we have a moral obligation to and strategic interest in assisting our neighbours (be it with climate change, or COVID-19). Examples of disengagement coming from the Trump administration prove that a lack of substantive rhetoric and policy during this period has seen them all but disappear diplomatically from the Indo-Pacific. Whether it be for our neighbours or the strength of the Australian body politic, it is in our interest to heed that message and engage in rebuilding not just those societies hardest hit by the virus but our authority on the global stage.

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