Coronavirus a chance to ease Indo-Pacific strategic tension

The coronavirus crisis highlights the risks of China’s grand strategic ambitions and is an opportunity for nations, including Australia, to reduce tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, says a prominent security expert from The Australian National University (ANU).

Professor Rory Medcalf, Head of the ANU National Security College, said that the emerging pandemic would make it harder for Xi Jinping’s China to sustain the mix of internal obedience and global respect required for its bid to dominate the region.

“The challenge now for Australia and other ‘middle players’ between the United States and China is to redouble their efforts to build security cooperation and define a future based on mutual respect for sovereignty of nations large and small,” he said.

He makes these comments ahead of the launch of his new book, Contest for the Indo-Pacific, on Tuesday. Foreign Affairs Minister, Senator the Hon Marise Payne, and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Senator the Hon Penny Wong, will together launch the book and deliver remarks to an audience including leaders of the Australian public service and the Canberra diplomatic corps.

“The Covid-19 emergency is a black swan event – an improbable catastrophe obvious in retrospect – that will disrupt the connected, contested Indo-Pacific region we have seen evolve in recent decades,” said Professor Medcalf, who has three decades of experience across diplomacy, intelligence, academia, think tanks and journalism.

“The crisis has shaken the Chinese people’s confidence in their leadership. It is also rattling the global economy, and other nations including America and India are undergoing their own domestic traumas too. Yet armed rivalries continue – there’s no sign that China’s naval and strategic assertiveness is stalling.

“The opportunity now for Australia, as we protect our own population and offer international cooperation in combating coronavirus, is to demonstrate a creative mix of resilience, national interest and partnership.

“This prolonged crisis could hasten the day when China will need to find a strategic settling point for its regional ambitions.”

Professor Medcalf’s major book retells the history of Asia as a connected region of two oceans, combining geopolitics, economics, strategy and cartography to explain how Indo-Pacific risks have arisen – and the prospects for coexistence and eventual cooperation among nations.

The book challenges the idea that China alone will map the future, and illuminates how Australia, Indonesia, Japan, India and other ‘middle players’ can have agency even with the United States in trouble.

It is published by Black Inc. in conjunction with LaTrobe University Press, and internationally by Manchester University Press under the title Indo-Pacific Empire.

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