From A Year of Hardship Springs Hope

By Penny Burtt
Asialink Group CEO

A message from Penny Burtt, Asialink Group CEO

The year 2020 was once imagined to be a glittering destination, where the world would marvel at and celebrate its technological, social, and political triumphs. Instead, it was a year marked by a pandemic that has killed more than 1.6 million people, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, profound setbacks in the struggle to reduce global poverty, and a sharpening of geopolitical divides.

Yet it also was a year where human vulnerability was matched by the resilience of peoples and countries and repeated demonstrations of their ability to pull together to overcome shared crisis.

In 2020, we stopped flying. We stopped going to the office. We stopped old habits of conferencing and socialising. And we took to the ‘virtual’ world of Zoom and Teams and the like, accelerating the trend to digital connectivity and new flexible work routines.  In our spare time, we surfed the Internet, binged on streaming video services, and rediscovered the wonders of our own kitchens.

When we did leave home, it was with the physical and metaphorical baggage of COVID-19. We often wore masks, carried hand sanitiser, and conversed in the vocabulary of our ‘new normal’ – lockdowns, quarantines, travel bubbles, viral reproduction rates, and social distancing. In an age of increased anxiety about privacy, we voluntarily shared information about our movements via Apps and QR Codes to enable contact tracers to monitor and find us.

Still, in the end, the terrible human and economic costs of the pandemic were accompanied by several discoveries about ourselves and our societies that have to be seen as a source of hope for the future.

In Australia, and across East Asia, governments and people moved quickly and with common purpose to suppress the spread of the virus and to limit the scale of the economic catastrophe.

In general, they were surprisingly successful. Although the crisis highlighted weaknesses in institutions and challenges of geography and demographics, the Asia Pacific fared better than most regions of the developed world in both health and economic outcomes. Its economy is estimated to have contracted less in 2020 and to likely grow more in 2021 than the world as a whole. It also registered lower rates of viral transmission.

Moreover, medical science has produced a range of vaccines to combat the COVID-19 virus in record time. The test now is to ensure they are distributed equitably. As former prime minister John Howard told Asialink recently, failure to ensure the vaccine is shared fairly would be a source of deep grievance.

Geopolitically, the rise of China and questions about the reliability of the US as a partner to the region continued to be the source of the greatest strategic anxiety. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated concerns about both. The election of Joe Biden as US president promises new directions in America’s relations with Asia, and possibly China, that might restore some much needed cooperation between the great powers.

For Australia, this would be welcome. The pandemic has played out alongside a sharp deterioration in our relationship with China – by far, our biggest trading partner.

Indeed, this year gave us a dose of reality in international politics. The pandemic and the geopolitical trends of 2020 have underscored the centrality of states and state sovereignty.

We will have to look to states and our governments to lead many of the decisions needed to ensure our prosperity and security in this Asian century. Still, the challenges we faced in 2020 also were a powerful reminder that solutions to big global problems require strong multilateral institutions and habits of cooperation.

The scale of those challenges is bound to make those of us who work in organisations like Asialink, with the purpose of building mutual understanding between nations and better international relations, feel somewhat small. We can be easily overawed by the challenge.

But we also can rise to it and recognise that our persistent efforts to build networks, forge new communities of shared interests, deepen mutual understanding, and build inclusive prosperity can make a difference.

Across Asialink’s four program areas – diplomacy, business, education, and arts and culture – we have endeavoured to keep doing that in the face of unprecedented challenges.

This was Asialink’s 30th anniversary. Just a year ago, we could not have imagined such poor timing for a celebration.

Yet we can be pleased that the organisation which opened its doors in 1990 as an initiative of the Federal Government’s Commission for the Future and The Myer Foundation has grown into a unique national institution designed to increase understanding of Asia, build our capabilities to engage with Asia, and create the networks in Asia to help make engagement possible.

Being forced to operate in the virtual world didn’t stop us from moving forward with key initiatives in 2020 that contributed to Asialink’s core mission in which we continued to work closely with numerous partner organisations across the region.

Just some of the highlights of a crowded year include:

  • The 2nd Asian-Australian Leadership Summit (AALS) convened online between 26 and 29 October and the 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian Australian Awards on 29 October. A partnership between Asialink, PwC Australia, Johnson Partners and the Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership at the Australian National University, the AALS highlights the contributions of the Asian-Australian community and aims to overcome barriers that have seen just 1.6 percent of Australian chief executives and equivalents come from Asian backgrounds despite comprising 12 percent of the population.
  • The 13th annual ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Dialogue, hosted online on 7 December. Our thanks go to Asialink’s partners, the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia and the Asia New Zealand Foundation (ANZF), to ensuring our resounding success in sharing the lessons of our individual experiences in meeting regional challenges and in searching for common solutions.
  • We consolidated our new platform for commentary and analysis Asialink Insights to fulfil our mission to deliver readers deeper understanding of the affairs of the region. Senior adviser Dr. Donald Greenlees launched our Milestones series of podcasts with some timely advice to government from former prime minister John Howard on how to manage the relationship with China. We hosted an outstanding stable of writers including Asialink senior adviser and former ambassador John McCarthy AO; Asialink international director Prof. Tony Milner; author and former ambassador to Thailand, James Wise; Japan’s former ambassador to Australia Sumio Kusaka; director of the Australia India Institute, Tanya Spisbah; Indonesia expert Prof. Peter McCawley; and veteran Washington Post Asia correspondent, Keith B. Richburg.
  • Asialink Business, ably led by CEO Mukund Narayanamurti, proved the lack of physical contact does not need to reduce impact. It launched its landmark report, “Winning in Asia” in August. The result of a partnership with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand and The Sid and Fiona Myer Family Foundation, the digital launch event attracted an online audience of almost 1,000 participants from Australia and across the region. The report highlighted the vital role having an Asia strategy plays in ensuring the success of Australian businesses.
  • We also marked the 25th year of the Asialink Leaders Program, with 46 exceptional leaders joining global alumni of 900 across almost 30 countries. The 2020 Leaders commenced their nine-month journey with a Foundation Week in Melbourne before moving into fully virtual mode, including for the flagship Virtual Summit in late October which bought together speakers from across Australia and the region to discuss topics from the importance of identity in Australia’s Asia engagement to contemporary China policy and innovation.
  • Asialink’s education arm, the Asia Education Foundation (AEF), once again proved why it is one of the most enduring and successful parts of our mission to engage with Asia. With its long experience in operating digital and online platforms, Hamish Curry’s AEF team worked to expand two-way learning and engagement across 13 Asia-Pacific nations utilising a broad range of new digital platforms, creating immersive learning experiences. Enlisting hundreds of educators, it collaborated on podcasts and broadcasts on international education partnerships, equity in education, and global competence. Students also engaged in online discussions and debates around Australia about global issues, their aspirations for education, and their Indo-Pacific neighbourhood. All this was made possible with the support of strategic partners across the federal and state governments, professional education associations, and business.
  • Of all sectors, arts and culture suffered some of the greatest setbacks in 2020 as opportunities for public performance evaporated. But Asialink’s arts and culture program under the leadership of Dr. Pippa Dickson invested in delivering and developing projects to build capacity and autonomy for the Australian arts sectors in engaging with the Asia Pacific. Among the outstanding successes were the Public Displays of Affection conference and subsequent report to prompt refection and dialogue on soft power agendas and the status of cultural diplomacy. Asialink Arts also were delighted to present two exceptional Australian companies centre stage at the BOAO Culture & Creativity Week in Hainan China through a conversation supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It also advanced 知音sonicbridge with Monash University, a new contemporary music exchange to be delivered through filmic modes in early 2021.

We could go on. This is a far from exhaustive list of our activities in 2020. We are planning a more active year in 2021.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without you – our partners, friends, and supporters.  As we come to the end of a year none of us will forget, we should remember that 2020 was not just a year of hardship, but one where we proved even in great adversity we can accomplish so much together.