Polling conducted by the Lowy Institute has revealed that a growing number of the Australian public believe the government should take a stronger stance on Beijing’s bullying and take more proactive steps to limit its economic dependence on the rising superpower.
Across the globe the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order appears to be in tatters, the impact of COVID-19 has exposed a startling over dependence on global supply chains, with the continued threat of asymmetric competitors, political warfare and broader global trends each serving to impact the security and sovereignty of many nations, including Australia.
Adding further fuel to the fire is the global and more localised impacts of COVID-19, which range from recognising the impact of vulnerable, global supply chains upon national security as many leading nations, long advocates of "closer collaboration and economic integration", grasp at the life boats of nation-state to secure their national interest.
Despite its relative isolation, Australia's position as a global trading nation, entrenched in the maintenance and expansion of the post-Second World War order has left the nation at a unique and troubling cross roads, particularly as its two largest and most influential “great and powerful” friends: the US and the UK appear to be floundering against the tide of history.
With the spectre of COVID-19 far from diminished across the globe and waves of civil unrest and violence tearing their way across the US, and the UK still under strict lock downs, these two great powers are limited in their capacity to actively and assertively intervene on behalf of their allies around the world, despite intent.
The fragility of these two nations has prompted many global dictators to take advantage of the absence, as the old saying states: "When the cat is away, the mice will play", leaving Australia and many other allies, including Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, exposed to the whims of nations dedicated to the end of post-war order.
Nowhere is this more evident than across the Indo-Pacific as an emboldened Beijing continues to punish Australia for pursuing a global inquiry into the origins and China's handling of COVID-19, while also leveraging the diminished presence of the US military in the region to project power and intimidate both Japan and, critically, Taiwan.
While the Australian government and the Prime Minister in particular has taken the proverbial bull by the horns in standing up to China's blatant antagonism and hostility to the post-World War Two economic, political and strategic balance of power, ironically the same one China owes its economic transformation to, the need for a truly co-ordinated response has fallen by the wayside, at least until now.
Polling conducted by the Lowy Institute has revealed some startling details regarding the Australian public's views of the government's response to Beijing's attempts at economic, political and strategic coercion, the Australia-US alliance and the broader challenges to Australia's national sovereignty providing interesting insights for public policy debate and consideration.
Australians are pessimistic, less secure and alert
Alex Oliver and Natasha Kassam of the Lowy Institute have used a piece in The Australian, titled 'Happy to hop away from these bounders', to set the scene and sentiment of the Australian public as they come to terms with the early stages and impacts of a new era of 'great power competition'.
"The view from Australia today is sobering. Having barely emerged from the bushfire crisis, we were struck with a global pandemic and our borders remain closed to the world," Oliver and Kassam explain.
"Our great ally, the US, is still deep in the health crisis and preoccupied with domestic social discord. Our largest trading partner, China, is wielding its economic leverage over us and threatens to do more as we enter our first recession in 29 years.
"Against this backdrop the 2020 Lowy Institute Poll, released on Wednesday, finds Australians feel far more distrustful, pessimistic and less secure than at any point in its 16-year history.
"Only half of Australians report feeling safe, a remarkable 28-point drop from 2018. And the same number feel optimistic about Australia’s economic performance in the next decade, the lowest level of economic optimism recorded in the poll."
The polling of just under 2,500 adult Australians revealed some startling details about the sentiments held by the Australian public towards our largest trading partner and emerging competitor, including that eight in 10 Australians would "approve of travel and financial sanctions on Chinese officials associated with human rights abuses".
This polling also revealed that Australian confidence in China's President Xi Jinping plummeted 22 per cent, with an overwhelming majority of Australians, some 94 per cent, calling for the Australia to "reduce our economic dependence on China", which is described as "the most emphatic consensus on an issue in the survey’s 16-year history".
It is also critical to identify that while "nearly four in five respondents said the nation’s alliance with the United States was important to Australia’s security, up six points since last year’s poll", only 51 per cent of the respondents believed they could "trust the US to act responsibly".
The public have spoken, come up with a long-term plan
One thing can be clearly taken from the startling polling results, the Australian public now agree that the nation needs a drastically different approach to the one which has in particular dominated the last three decades of foreign, economic, industrial and national security policy.
While it is often said that much of Australia's public policy-making decisions are based on the comparatively short election cycles across the various jurisdictions and this is a challenge faced across the democratic world – however, the grand irony is that if governments and oppositions planned for the long term they'd be more likely to be returned.
In light of this, it is time for Australia to plan for the next 15 to 20 years, not the next term of state, territory or federal government, providing policy consistency, vision for the public and surety in a period of global and regional turmoil.
This approach requires more than vanity programs, which can be best left to local government or private developers, rather it requires a strategic approach to a number of highly visible, big impact public policy areas, including:
- Infrastructure development: Addressing the critical links between hubs of economic prosperity including regional hubs and metropolitan centres – including improved, faster and more reliable road, rail and air transport links.
- Water security: Australia is a continent of extremes, "droughts and flooding rains", yet we do little to adequately channel and store the vast quantities of water that falls – now is the opportunity to promote economic stimulus through infrastructure investment while supporting Australia's agricultural industry and drought proofing the continent.
- Energy and resource security: Addressing the nation's lack of strategic resource and energy supplies has come to the fore during COVID-19, preparing the nation for such challenges whether natural or man-made should be of paramount priority – this requires less ideology and more pragmatism.
- Strategic industry development: COVID has stirred many within the Australian public to question why Australia isn't manufacturing more of the critical – it is clear that Australia requires a concerted policy initiative in the form of a Strategic Industries Act to develop a robust, globally competitive industry 4.0 oriented manufacturing base.
Each of these contribute to the nation's sovereignty and security at a time when many of the principles that Australia's post-Second World War public and strategic policy is based upon are coming under threat – serving to make Australia a more reliable economic, political and strategic partner amid a period of great power competition.
Furthermore, it serves to make Australia more resilient to man-made and natural shocks, resistant to coercion, economically competitive and robust at a time when the Australian public are calling for leadership, forward planning and vision.
In essence, it encapsulates the vision of former prime minister Robert Menzies, who outlined not just a call to action for Australia, but also identified the nation's responsibility to support the development and maintenance of a peaceful world, saying:
"If we want to make our contribution to the pacification of the world, it is our duty to present to the world the spectacle of a rich country with a great people, with an adequate population – with a population which may justly say to the rest of the world: 'We are here; we propose to maintain our integrity as a nation; and our warrant for that is that we are using the resources which God has given into our hands'."
Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.
Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?
Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever-present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience.