10 February 2021
Last Friday, the leaders of Indonesia and Malaysia proposed a special meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to discuss the military takeover in Myanmar.
Normally, special meetings would be initiated by the ASEAN chair – currently Brunei – which can be slow to act, as members do not traditionally interfere in one another’s internal affairs.
But Indonesian president Joko Widodo and Malaysian prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin apparently recognise that the coup in Myanmar represents an important challenge to the credibility of South-East Asian countries and their ability to resolve regional problems.
Nevertheless, a show of solidarity will be difficult, given that Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have expressed concern about the coup, but Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia have thus far tended to treat it as an internal affair.
All of these countries need to face up to the responsibilities that come with ASEAN taking a central role in Asian diplomacy. ASEAN members should lead efforts to ease the current tensions in Myanmar, which could become an impediment to further regional integration and prosperity.
Recently, Australia has placed more emphasis on ASEAN as the foundation stone of regional diplomacy and has backed this up with increased aid to improve governance and cross-border cooperation in parts of the region. This has strengthened Australia’s longstanding ties with South-East Asia.
The Morrison government should use these ties to encourage key countries with closer connections to Myanmar to respond more actively to the coup.
This will obviously require quiet diplomacy. But, as a close neighbour of South-East Asia, it is essential for Australia to take this step. In doing so, it can also play a role in explaining the region’s diplomatic processes to the wider world.
Pacific leadership brawl
The election of a new secretary-general for the Pacific Islands Forum has created tensions that are seriously challenging the ability of South Pacific countries to cooperate on pressing regional issues, including COVID-19, climate change, natural disasters and influence peddling by China and other external powers.
The election was an unusual five-way competition. Normally, the role is rotated between the three main groups of the region: Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia. The previous two secretaries-general were Melanesian and Polynesian.
Last week, Henry Puna, the former prime minster of the Cook Islands in Polynesia, was elected to the top job by nine votes to eight, beating out Gerald Zackios from the Marshall Islands in Micronesia.
Five Micronesian countries, led by Palau, now say they will leave the seventeen-member organisation because their interests are being ignored by larger South Pacific countries.
Pacific countries have been prone to financial scandals and crises, and internal political turmoil. The PIF plays an important role in providing a sense of purpose to the region, as well as some peer pressure that encourages better governance.
Australia is a member of the PIF and the largest provider of aid to many of its fellow members. As Australia is likely to be the main source of emergency financial and security assistance for the group, it has a vital interest in maintaining regional unity. But it appears to have been caught out by the severity of this dispute.
The break-up of PIF requires some quick cooperative diplomacy. Australia – alongside other key aid providers, including Japan and New Zealand – must broker a compromise which reassures the smaller Micronesian states that they are not being ignored.
In January, South Korea revealed that its population had declined for the first time in the country’s history.
This tipping point, brought forward by the pandemic, underlines how ageing is emerging as an important social and economic issue in Asia, despite the popular image of a demographic dividend in countries with a high population growth, such as the Philippines.
The population of South Korea – Asia’s fourth biggest economy – has been ageing at a faster rate than elsewhere in the region, principally due to a rapid decline in fertility.
The impact of ageing on the strategic and economic outlook in Asia needs to be taken into account in Australian thinking about the region.
Services related to aged care – medical, financial and otherwise – could become a faster-growing trade opportunity for Australian businesses than offshore education.
Countries with shrinking populations may be less prone to pursue territorial expansion and more likely to cooperate on shared economic challenges.
And Australia’s history of renewing its population through immigration should prove to be a soft-power asset, as South Korea and other countries look for more ways to grow their populations as they struggle to successfully implement baby bonuses and other pro-growth policies.