Australia’s reliance on Five Eyes for Covid-19’s economic strategy excludes major trading partners Scott Morrison

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The Morrison government’s pressure for economic negotiations between finance ministers in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance countries remains vague, with no further details on the frequency of meetings or their agenda.

But some experts have argued that the decision to coordinate economic policies with Australia’s traditional security partners reflects a “very deep misunderstanding” of our modern economic interests as the group excludes Asia and most of Europe.

The government said this week that Australia had secured support from the other Five Eyes pact countries – the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and New Zealand – to hold “regular” meetings to coordinate economic responses during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The current intelligence-sharing agreement has its origins in the 1940s – and during the Cold War was focused on the Soviet Union – but over time, cooperation between partners has expanded beyond signal information to include issues such as terrorism, organized crime, law enforcement and borders.

While security analysts have expressed support for broadening the group’s focus at a time when China has become increasingly assertive on the world stage, other observers are skeptical.

“Whether it’s a thought bubble or not, the idea reflects a very deep misunderstanding of Australia’s national interests in the global economy that are heavily concentrated in Asia,” Peter Drysdale, emeritus professor of economics at the Australian National University, told the Guardian Australia.

“Two-thirds of our foreign trade is trading with non-Five Eyes countries, minus New Zealand. It is in this region that our economic prosperity and political security reside, and where the region effectively engages this region in the multilateral system that protects both of them is the top priority.

Drysdale, who is head of the East Asia Bureau of Economic Research at ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy and whose previous work paved the way for the creation of Apec, said he did not disagree against engaging with the Five Eyes.

“As a major theatre of economic coordination that matters to our future, the international market forces that are important to us today are clearly pointing elsewhere,” he said.

“Australia’s prosperity and security are best ensured by the regional arrangements of Asean-6, the East Asia Summit and Apec and through the G20 on a global scale, even though the United States continues to play the role of spoiler in this global system.”

Labour Foreign Affairs Critic Penny Wong also expressed doubts about the substance of the proposal, saying she would expect discussions with Five Eyes’ partners to be a “routine practice.”

“What we haven’t seen is a serious plan of engagement with our region – particularly Southeast Asia – and the G20 to rally the world’s largest economies to coordinate a global response to this crisis,” she told the Guardian Australia.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said this week that it was reasonable that in a challenge like the allies of the Covide pandemic should “coordinate and talk to each other again on a regular basis on the economic sphere.”

He called the proposal “coordination with Trusted Partners of Australia” in a context of “new complexities in the geopolitical environment.”

Geoff Miller, australia’s former ambassador to Japan and high commissioner to New Zealand, said five Eyes members referred to the “Anglosphere.”

From Australia’s perspective, it was a “very strange grouping in which important economic discussions” were held, given the exclusion of important trading partners, including China, Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, Miller wrote in an article for the public policy blog Pearls and Irritations.

But Peter Jennings, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said it was substantial and welcome for the Five Eyes to discuss economic cooperation and the intersection of economy and security.

“I can imagine them talking about 5G and computing for example,” he said.

“It is significant that Australia is pushing this in the absence of U.S. leadership.”

Patrick Walsh, a former intelligence analyst and now associate professor of intelligence and security studies at Charles Sturt University, said he saw the proposal as a necessary push toward stronger strategic coordination after Covide-19.

“Covide-19 really exposed for Australians, but also other five Eyes partners, the vulnerability of critical supply chains in medical equipment and supplies,” he said.

Walsh said he didn’t think the intention was to stop trade with China. “It’s about how we can improve risk management in industries that are currently critical or likely to be critical to national security in the future.”

He said Xi Jinping’s government had taken an increasingly “aggressive” and “muscular” approach to its relations with Western countries – including the imposition of trade restrictions against Australia following its call for a Covide-19 investigation.

Asked on Friday about the health of the comprehensive strategic partnership with China, Morrison insisted that Australia had “done nothing to harm this partnership” and would act in its national interest.

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