COVID-19: Engaging Asia

By Penny Burtt, Group CEO, Asialink

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a challenge that cuts to the heart of what we do at Asialink: forging networks and opening doors to greater engagement between Australia and Asia.

We have never in the post-Second World War era experienced this kind of disruption to the daily interactions that sustain our diplomatic, commercial, educational, and artistic and cultural engagement with our immediate region.

We are all adjusting to a new vocabulary and way of life in pandemic – the words lockdown, self-isolation, social distancing and working remotely have found their way into daily language across the region.

The situation is aggravated by the anxiety we all feel for our families, our friends and ourselves.  The sense of fear and uncertainty is shared by our partners across Asia – from India to Japan.  Each country has its own experience in combatting COVID-19 and managing the devastating economic consequences of public health remedies.

While Asia has its success stories, we mourn the loss of life and the hardship inflicted, especially in those countries with weaker health and social welfare systems and less capacity to withstand the economic torrent.

We all are touched in some way - our friend Aileen Baviera, one of the region's leading China experts and University of the Philippines professor, who only last year joined the Asialink-Malaysia ISIS ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Dialogue, passed away on 21 March from COVID-19. She was 61.

And yet alongside the sense of loss is our conviction that cooperation among the countries of the region and the work we do at Asialink to ensure Australia remains actively engaged is absolutely critical to our national interests.

Indeed, cooperation between the countries of our region will be a vital  part of the solution to overcoming COVID-19 and rebuilding our economies together when we do.

For now, we have to be more creative than ever in utilising the more limited tools we have to keep the conversation going between Australia and Asia and finding new and innovative  ways to cooperate.

The things that have always served Asialink well in the past will continue to underpin our efforts now – an openness to a diversity of voices in Asia and Australia, a keenness to network at many levels of society in the countries of the region, and a deep curiosity that drives our efforts to develop the capabilities  and knowledge necessary to seek out the shared opportunities for Australia and Asia.

COVID-19 has come at a time when we were already turning our minds to how Asialink might build on its record as Australia’s leading centre for creative engagement with Asia.

This year marks our 30th anniversary.  We see it as less an occasion for celebration than a milestone in the life of a national institution committed to securing Australia’s national prosperity and security.  It is a moment for sober reflection; a reminder of how far Australia’s relations with Asia have come since our launch in 1990 and how far we still have to go to create a truly Asia-literate and Asia-engaged community.

As part of that process, from today we are giving a fresh look to our website and introducing Asialink Insights as our chief online forum for news, commentary and analysis on the region and Australia’s relations with it.

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to figure prominently in coverage of the region in the coming months and even years.  It will leave a mark on life in Australia and Asia in ways that right now are unpredictable.  It might well reshape the region’s geopolitics and domestic politics, economic patterns and social interactions, and its relations with Australia and the rest of the West.  Some changes are likely to endure well beyond the end of the pandemic.

We will endeavour to draw on our singular capabilities to inform you of those changes and what they mean for Australia and our neighbours.  But we also will be sharing information on the facets of life, and the activities we at Asialink undertake, that go on despite this unparalleled situation.

Today, we publish three articles on different facets of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Offering applied analysis on a major regional health threat is not new ground for Asialink – in September 2018 we joined the Wheeler Centre and the ABC in analysing how Australia would respond to a hypothetical pandemic originating in southern China, This is Not a Drill.

Asialink’s senior adviser Donald Greenlees argues, the COVID-19 pandemic should be the catalyst for greater multinational efforts, centred on Asia, to improve surveillance, reporting and reaction of potential pandemic pathogens because of the region’s historic vulnerability to virus outbreaks.

Former ambassador John McCarthy issues a timely call to Canberra to support our Southeast Asian neighbors, especially Indonesia, even as we face a domestic battle against the virus.

And Asialink’s director of diplomacy, Melissa Conley-Tyler, explores the war of words between the USA and China over COVID-19 and its potentially significant geopolitical ramifications.

As we look to the future, we will need to be cognisant of other possible trends in Asia.

Will temporary curbs on movement and people-to-people exchanges leave a lasting legacy?

What impact will the experience of pandemic have on globalisation as many countries close borders and become wary of foreign interaction?

Will the pandemic hasten decoupling of economies amid a rush to take out insurance against future supply disruptions?

How quickly can the region rebound economically once the virus threat passes?

What are the implications for the strength of individual regimes and important diplomatic relationships?

These are all vital questions for us to ask as we consider the ramifications of COVID-19.  Many of the answers will take a long time to emerge and might be clouded by ambiguity.  We will do our best to explain and make sense of the issues as they evolve; we will do that by offering a diversity of views from across the region; and we will carry on our core work of driving  Australia’s engagement with Asia.

When Asialink was launched in 1990, one of our founders took the view that there was a need for an organisation that helped Australians understand their own region, opened doors to the issues, and contributed to the vital task of two-way communication and engagement.  As we mark our 30thbirthday in difficult times, that mission remains as relevant as ever.