The COVID-19 pandemic risks weakening Australia's relationship with both the United States and China, a leading foreign policy expert says.
Executive director of the Lowy Institute and international relations observer Michael Fullilove said each superpower's "lacklustre" approach to the virus was troubling for Australia.
"Coronavirus will raise questions in Australians' minds about both countries," he said.
"The United States response to coronavirus has not been impressive and it's not what one would want to see from your great ally and the most important country in the world," he said.
Dr Fullilove, speaking on Wednesday at a Lowy Institute event held on Zoom, said the pandemic had also started a debate about whether Australia needed to distance itself from China.
Australia's response to COVID-19 could align it closer with "coalitions" of competent middle power nations dealing with the pandemic better than the world's two largest economies, he said.
Journalist and Lowy Institute senior fellow Richard McGregor said Australia's response to the pandemic showed "pretty great state capacity", particularly its health system, while the US was struggling after decades of attacks on government.
Dr Fullilove said the virus was a sobering moment for the US, where Americans' last line of defence was US President Donald Trump, who had spread misinformation and was still giving self-absorbed press conferences.
Now China's a source of disease and I think that has to affect Beijing's soft power in the future.Dr Michael Fullilove
The images emerging from New York during the health crisis were arresting, Dr Fullilove said.
"We're used to thinking of America as the epicentre of global power, not the epicentre of global disease," he said.
"America looks feverish, it looks a bit disoriented, it looks weak."
The US response to the virus was affecting the way the world saw the nation, however the pandemic still had a long way to run, he said.
While the US and China's efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 were seen in some quarters as a contest between political systems, Dr Fullilove said the international divide was more between competent and incompetent states.
Despite China's efforts to cast a positive light on its response to the coronavirus, he also doubted it would go blameless if in six months to a year death tolls were still overwhelming and the economy remained battered.
"Ultimately the same authoritarian system that allowed it to clamp down on the virus was also responsible for covering it up for months and allowing it to disperse from Wuhan to the world," he said.
China would be seen as having let the virus spread to other parts of the world.
"I don't see how that can fail to drain some of the confidence and belief we have in China," Dr Fullilove said.
"For the last few decades China has been a source of capital and labour, and innovation, and now it's a source of disease and I think that has to affect Beijing's soft power in the future."
Mr McGregor, a China analyst, said the ruling Chinese Communist Party including President Xi Jinping would feel "bulletproof" if the nation emerged from the pandemic more strongly.
"They've gone through many crises over the past couple of decades and they've always come out of them, and if they come out of this one while the US flounders, they'll be confident, they'll be more emboldened in their foreign policy, they'll be more assertive, and they'll want a bigger role in international institutions and they'll be willing to take greater risks," Mr McGregor said.
While China had not won in its rivalry with the US, it could emerge from the pandemic looking better than the other superpower, he said.
However, forecasts showed China was facing a period of poor economic performance, something that would test its system.
"Western countries have been through recessions and depressions in their time and continued as democracies and recovered. China has not had a real recession for a long, long time, certainly not in the way we measure it since the '70s," Mr McGregor said.
"They're going to go through a very testing period, Xi Jinping will go through a very testing period, unless they can get a snap back in their economy. Right now, it's not on the horizon."