Two opposing giants of Australian politics have publicly agreed that American President Donald Trump has been dismal in his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and could pay a price for it at this year’s election.
The elder statesmen were also at one in describing Chinese President Xi Jinping as far more aggressive than his predecessors have been in pushing China’s agenda.
Former Liberal prime minister John Howard joined former Labor leader Kim Beazley, who was also an ambassador to Washington, in a live streamed panel discussion about Australia’s national security amid international uncertain times.
Hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute to launch its Strategic Vision 2020 conference, the webinar canvassed a number of topics, but the former political leaders were at one when it came to Australia’s relationships with the United States and China.
Howard encouraged everyone to “strike a sense of balance” in describing how the world will recover from COVID-19.
“Not to pretend that the pandemic won’t leave an imprint, but equally not to go overboard and say the world will never be the same again,” he said.
And he named some countries he thought were leaders in handling the crisis, while singling out the United States as an example of poor leadership.
“Around the world we have seen some good examples of countries that have handled it very well. I think our own country has handled the pandemic extremely well. I think countries such as Taiwan have handled it extremely well. I think some of the European countries have done better than others, I think some have handled it poorly,” Howard said.
“I think it has affected the esteem in which the leaders of some individual countries are held. It’s hard not to say that the American president has not handled the pandemic well thus far. In part it will have implications at the November election. Because occasions like this, the public expects the job will be competently steered irrespective of their political allegiance…
“This is an occasion when the public says ‘we face a threat to the country’s well-being and we will judge your response to that. If you do it well, we will give you a tick. If you don’t do it well, we may remember that when the time comes along.”
Beazley agreed, describing Trump as a leader who “talks up a storm” but whose actions don’t follow through. He compared Barack Obama’s global leadership in helping African nations following the outbreak of Ebola – to the point of the US telling Australia it’s approach wasn’t good enough – with Trump’s response to the current global pandemic.
“That (Obama and Ebola) was America taking responsibility. I’m afraid to say that in this particular instance, it is just about the opposite,” Beazley said.
The former opposition leader said COVID-19 will change the way nations look at themselves and also the way they cooperate with other countries.
“I do think that this is certainly going to strengthen arguments and ideas, in this country as well, about what these days we call sovereign capability, in the old days we used to call it self-reliance,” he said.
Howard said the pandemic has caused the world to view China a little differently, but that has a great deal to do with its current leadership.
“I think it will be a mistake to say the world will never be the same again. I think it will be substantially the same. I think we will have learned to value international cooperation. I think international cooperation has been in fits and starts in this pandemic. I don’t think there’s much doubt that it originated in China and I don’t there’s much doubt that the rest of the world thinks that China was very slow in alerting the rest of the world to it,” Howard said.
But the former prime minister said Australia needed to maintain a good relationship with China and he maintained his long-held view that China and its economic rise remains good for the world.
“I deplore the fact that it’s got an authoritarian government. Australia by and large, fueled by both sides of politics in government, has had a very sensible relationship with China,” he said
‘’… We must remember the end game and the end game is to maintain in the maximum extent consistent with our values, a fully developed relationship with China.”
He said Xi’s administration was more aggressive, more authoritarian and more of a bully than the leadership of his predecessors.
“The current government in China is internationally behaving in a more ramrod assertive way that its predecessors, and that is the real difference,” Howard said.
Beazley said while it was in Australia’s interests to maintain a healthy relationship with China, Xi’s leadership was unlike that of others.
“Nothing happens automatically. You actually have to have the skills to bring about the situation,” he said.
“… The problem we have with the Chinese leadership at the moment, I think, is that they are essentially repudiating the direction of Deng Xiaoping, which is a direction that led to Chinese prosperity…
“We have done nothing but wish the Chinese good in their economic development.”
On the topic of the possibility of war between the US and China, Beazley raised the issue of Taiwan.
“The core problem here that might lead to a hot war is Taiwan,” he said.
“Already there is a line drawn on Taiwan. The United States drew a line on that a long time ago. And that is a line that says that while it’s recognised that Taiwan is a part of China, any attempt to resolve that issue by force will be dealt with. … one would hope that it would not be tested.”