Australia

It's in our interests to step up support for our region

While attention has been focused on the challenges of managing the rise of China, a humanitarian and economic disaster playing out on our doorstep in south-east Asia could prove just as important.

The COVID-19 pandemic is raging out of control in key countries in the region, especially Indonesia and India. The lack of adequate testing and weak health services there make it hard to know the exact number of cases and deaths, but on one estimate, Indonesia has about 1 million people who have been infected.

The burden of lockdowns and treating the sick is laying waste to economies, especially those in places heavily dependent on tourism, such as Thailand, Bali and the Pacific islands.

The suffering is undermining popular faith in governments and could send the cause of democracy back in many countries. Some democracies have mangled their response, while Vietnam, an authoritarian communist state, has until now been a standout success among developing countries in controlling the disease.

The instability the pandemic has caused could leave some countries more susceptible to Chinese influence even though China is viewed with caution in the region. It has wasted its advantages of economic might and impressive success in controlling the virus with its bullying diplomacy over territorial disputes in the
South China Sea and on the border with India.

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Yet, if the current crisis drags on, China will certainly use its financial strength to bring the region into its orbit. Papua New Guinea and the Philippines are two countries where Chinese cash has bought some support for Beijing’s positions on issues such as Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

It would be wrong to couch our support for the region solely in terms of counterbalancing China. Australia has a much deeper interest in ensuring stability in our backyard. It generates economic growth and keeps our borders safe. Australia must, therefore, take a more active role in the region, not just militarily but also in our economic and humanitarian relationships.

We are already doing a lot. We have announced a ‘‘step up’’ in support for the Pacific island states and we have recently signed a landmark free trade deal with Indonesia. Australia is also sharing expertise and equipment to help fight COVID-19.

But we could do much more. There is a strong case for an increase in emergency financial aid to avoid a repeat of the Asian financial crisis. Australia should be doing all it can to convince the United States to offer more financial support, either directly or through bodies such as the International Monetary Fund.

Unfortunately, Australia has to make up for the lack of interest in the region by the US under the Trump administration. While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is now touring the region looking for allies, he has hardly spoken about the economic and humanitarian issues being faced.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in a virtual address to the Aspen Security Forum yesterday, issued a carefully worded call for the US to start paying attention. He said Australia was pulling its weight but could not succeed without US support. ‘‘We look to the United States, but we don’t leave it to the United States,’’ he said. It is unclear whether the current US government will heed Mr Morrison’s call.

Note from the Editor

The Age's acting editor Michelle Griffin writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.

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