Australia must fulfil its regional obligations
Earlier this year, I wrote that I feared the situation in China would become the reality across the rest of the world in March and April. That, unfortunately, is now what is unfolding before our very eyes.
But if there is to be a third wave of this crisis, it will now be what happens in much of the developing world – including on Australia’s own doorstep.
Last month, the World Bank warned that an additional 11 million people could be pushed into poverty across South-East Asia in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. According to some estimates, there could be as many as 500,000 deaths in Indonesia alone. In the Pacific, some of our island neighbours have only a handful of ventilators.
Initially, many hoped the tropical climate of our near neighbours would help quash the virus, as it did with SARS almost a decade ago, but that is clearly not going to be the case. Likewise, the relatively youthful population of our region appears not to be the barrier for which we all hoped. Indeed, Indonesia, with one of the youngest populations in the world, currently has the highest reported death rate from Covid-19, although that will be partly a consequence of limited testing and the uncertainty around the nation’s true caseload.
To date, the Australian government has approached the coronavirus crisis as largely a domestic one. I have been critical elsewhere of the tardiness of various elements of the national response – both in public health measures and on the economy. However, as this crisis continues, we ignore the foreign policy implications at our peril and to the peril of our region.
In order to avoid this, a more proactive approach by Scott Morrison will be required, including intensive engagement with regional counterparts. We first need to ensure there is a strong framework for regional trust and co-operation, which will become vital when the situation inevitably worsens. The collapse of an economy or the breakdown of society in just one South-East Asian nation will quickly affect all of us across the region. Many will seek to leave any emergent chaos.
As we saw during the Asian financial crisis, when economic impacts harden – especially for the region’s poor – this can very quickly lead to widespread protests and social unrest.
Equally, the failure by governments to arrest the course of the pandemic and adequately support their economies could see their authority quickly erode. This is of most concern in young and increasingly thriving democracies across our region.
As others have noted, when this happens there are two fundamental proclivities governments must avoid.
The first is to retreat from civilian institutions and inwards to the perceived safety of the military. The risks of a declaration of martial law in some places is already a real possibility. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has already “given the go order” to the military and police to shoot anyone breaking the lockdown measures. And when a ruling military general elsewhere in the region says that “health should be put before freedom”, it isn’t necessarily for the right reasons.
The second proclivity is to retreat inwards, towards centralisation rather than decentralisation. As we have found in Australia, the role of the states, territories and local government is critical for ensuring the virus is fought at every level of society. The challenge for the national leaders in our region is to find a way to build a co-operative approach, rather than allowing everyone to simply go their own way. America’s plight shows what happens when states are pitted against one another.
But just as the governments of the region must build co-operative approaches nationally, they must also build a co-operative approach regionally. Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s recent call for a virtual summit of ASEAN is a welcome recognition of the stark reality facing our region and the importance of a joint approach.
The challenge for the Australian government is to ensure it is a constructive participant in the region’s crisis management, even if ASEAN as a particular vehicle has its limitations. Widodo himself has previously shown an appetite for greater Australia–ASEAN co-operation in the past and will likely understand the importance of that co-operation at this particular hour. Roughly a quarter of Australia’s $4 billion aid budget goes to the Asia-Pacific region, support that must now be fast-tracked and focused in immediate public health needs.
Other benefits could flow from greater regional co-operation on this crisis. It would provide an opportunity for countries such as Singapore to share their own important lessons for managing the virus with their neighbours. It would allow the region to identify opportunities for co-operation, including in testing, and to establish a set of benchmarks to guide their own response. And it would allow the region to deepen habits of co-operation before this crisis gets worse, which will become particularly important if we see it also become a migratory crisis.
This does not require the reinvention of the wheel. As former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has highlighted, many of the joint initiatives and co-operative partnerships needed already exist – at least on paper – within South-East Asia; the problem is they are just not being used. But, on this occasion, the region cannot simply wait for the crisis to pass before minds are turned to the solution.
Ensuring this co-operative groundwork is in place now will help with the recovery of many nations, including our own.
Australia has a tendency to see our region as a recipient of aid and not a source of prosperity. But we should not forget that we do more trade with South-East Asia than either Japan or the United States. One-sixth of students in Australia hail from the region. In other words, ensuring our neighbours can quickly recover from this crisis will be one of the biggest factors for ensuring Australia itself can quickly recover.
In doing all this, we cannot lose sight of our friends in the Pacific Islands states. Tuvalu’s decision last weekend to invoke the Biketawa Declaration, first used around the regional peacekeeping mission in the Solomon Islands, was the right one. It was an acknowledgement that this pandemic risks becoming a national security crisis there, too. Fragile healthcare systems, tourism-dependent economies and challenging living conditions are a potent mix when it comes to this particular viral threat.
The Australian government has been slow to show the Pacific that we will step up when it matters – especially compared with New Zealand’s response. There is still much we can do though, including bolstering our practical support.
The Australian Defence Force, for example, could be tasked with helping with the movement of medical and non-medical goods across a region now increasingly cut off from the rest of the world – and potentially even help with the evacuation of early cases for medical treatment. The deployment of Royal Australian Navy landing helicopter docks – massive vessels that have the capacity to deploy four complete field hospitals – would be a positive signal to the region. These ships could be used to treat coronavirus patients, or to treat non-Covid patients and relieve pressure on local health systems and “raise the line”. This is precisely why my government wanted them, to help our friends in times of crisis.
However, the biggest opportunity Australia has to make a difference in this moment is to seek to play a co-operative role among the region’s donors, including China, and the big development banks as they respond to the crisis.
If we want to be the partner of choice, we need to also acknowledge we are not the only choice of partner. Moreover, everyone operating within their own silos won’t be anywhere as effective as a co-ordinated response. This is the best way for Scott Morrison to live up to his pledge to the G20 leaders last month to take a lead on the Pacific. After massive cutbacks in Pacific Island aid by the current government for five years until 2018, now is the time to step up in reality. Not only in rhetoric.
When our neighbours across South-East Asia and the Pacific look back at this time, they will ask whether Australia was active or passive in the assistance we deliver. Half-measures and empty diplomatic rhetoric will count for little. In fact, it will have an adverse effect.
Australia cannot afford to be complacent in getting ahead of the impacts of this pandemic across our region. Without action, what began as a public health crisis, and became an economic crisis, risks becoming a foreign policy and national security crisis as well.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 11, 2020 as "The next crisis for coronavirus".
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