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We should stop taking our lead from the US and China

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America’s difficulty with COVID-19 is not just a function of Donald Trump’s sometimes inexplicable statements. The problem is deeper and more systemic than the tweets of an egocentric president.

Their political machinery at all levels is locked in a time warp. Both major parties are riddled with people who should have moved on to let new blood reinvigorate the system. At John Kennedy’s inauguration he spoke of letting the world know that the torch had been passed to a new generation. Kennedy was just under 44 at his inauguration; Trump is mid-70s and Joe Biden closer to 80. This is not the best of America.

We need to remember that the best of America is still there. Good, decent people who believe in liberty and equality of opportunity. They just haven’t been running the country for a while. Anti-Trump Republicans are running an ad featuring one of Reagan’s famous speeches. It highlights some of the great American values. Both parties should take note of how far they have drifted.

China has become an economic powerhouse and in doing so dragged millions out of poverty. It shouldn’t be too cocky about that … it’s capitalism, not communism that’s been the goose that laid the golden egg. China’s buying power does give it great strength. The flip side is that it needs world markets to sell its goods into and to supply inputs. A big economy still burdened with inefficient and corrupt state-owned enterprises is a big headache.

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China has other weaknesses. It shares land borders with 14 other countries. That’s not easy for any of those countries, as India has recently experienced. But it isn’t smooth sailing for China either. If you add on Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea we understand Beijing has a busy and pressing agenda.

Internally, the government doesn’t trust its own citizens, hence the unparalleled surveillance of its own people. China simply cannot allow people power to be unleashed. That’s a sad, permanent and ugly tension in society.

There are still infrastructure problems on an enormous scale. For example, China has done well to limit the horrific flooding it so frequently endured, but there are still issues. If 200 drowned in the US, as happened recently in China, it would be big news. There’s an eerie uncertainty to how it’s all going. My tip is: do not live downstream from the Three Gorges Dam.

Add on to all these issues the faltering appeal of its Belt and Road Initiative. The Sri Lankan port episode has served as a chill factor for other countries. One wonders why China, so deeply scarred by what it sees as past humiliations, thinks it is a good idea to go around playing the bully, seeking to humiliate.

No doubt Beijing does a lot of finger-pointing and sabre-rattling to please a domestic audience, but there’s a point at which that reveals stupidity and weakness.

There seems little doubt that the Chinese government uses its not inconsiderable networks of people overseas to try and influence other people and governments. We’re no exception. When a university apologises because a student assignment’s introduction says the coronavirus started in Wuhan … we are in real trouble.

Universities are meant to be powerhouses of the best and brightest, but even some of them have been shown to be naive. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute paper Picking Flowers, Making Honey lays bare the infiltration of university research by Chinese defence scientists. To be fair, it isn’t an easy area. Of course we need to do collaborative research with the rest of the world. We just need to keep our eyes wide open.

We also need to be shapers of our own lives, rather than taking whatever these two powers leave on the table.

The rest of us share this globe as well. In various ways, we can affect world outcomes. You can have a couple of bullies in the workplace, but if others stick together, they can provide a counterpoint.

Around the world, middle-order powers can form groupings and collectively exert considerable influence. We often think of groups arranged around geographic interest or economic size and they’re important, but there are other commonalities.

There’s an idea to start a D10, of 10 democracies working together. That sounds sensible, especially now. Getting the cluster of democracies in Asia working together with democracies outside the region would be a useful message. If the democracies don’t work together and sell the value of their system, who will?

Amanda Vanstone is a former Coalition minister.

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