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Coronavirus pandemic

Resisting uncertainty, Malaysia is finding itself

Climbing the stairs leading to the Sri Subramaniar Swamy temple at Batu Caves, Malaysia. Tourism has taken a big hit during the pandemic (Faris Hadziq via Getty Images)
Climbing the stairs leading to the Sri Subramaniar Swamy temple at Batu Caves, Malaysia. Tourism has taken a big hit during the pandemic (Faris Hadziq via Getty Images)
Published 18 Jan 2021 11:00   0 Comments

Malaysia is in a quandary, desperately trying to figure out how to resolve political and economic questions.

The fragmentation of the Malaysian market for votes is at a point it has never before experienced. In a country where ethnic politics have long dominated, there are the Malays, who are divided at least five ways, and the Chinese, with at least three parties to choose from, and the Indians (who electorally carry much less weight) with three choices. Then there is the increasingly vociferous East Malaysian segment, which is undecided as to whether to seek its fortunes by demanding increasing autonomy or by aligning with the dominant parties that succeed in controlling Peninsular Malaysia.

The divisions are not based on any clear grounds of economic ideology – or if there is, it is well hidden. The one party that has a distinct outlook is, of course, Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS), the national Islamic party, with the party that broke off from it being Parti Amanah Nasional, the National Trust Party. The Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) or People’s Justice Party claims to be a reform-based part but has failed to elaborate and develop upon the nature of its reforms – PKR has neither articulated nor detailed its reform agenda.

Credit ratings agency Fitch recently downgraded Malaysia to BBB+, only a few notches above that for junk bonds.

The fuzzy characteristics of the parties do little to set them apart along definite lines. This gives a great deal of flexibility to politicians, allowing them to explore innumerable permutations and combinations. In the absence of other separating planes, race and religion occupy a significant space, one that is perhaps given undue importance.

The economic sphere is no less muddy. The Malaysian economy has been grappling with the middle-income trap, the presence of a disproportionately large migrant force and the lack of adequate technological innovation and upgrading. As much as these factors have been consuming policy debate at the macroeconomic level, other issues have been disturbing people, among them the question of affordable and convenient healthcare, affordable housing and high household debt.

Disturbing as these challenges are, the arrival of Covid-19 has only compounded the problems. Alongside the aggressive political jockeying, the pandemic has spelt uncertainty and a lack of direction, economically speaking. This disturbing scenario has not gone unnoticed.

Recently, the credit ratings agency Fitch downgraded Malaysia to BBB+, only a few notches above that for junk bonds. The downgrade was, arguably, a result of the political uncertainties that abound. A disappointed Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul responded by claiming Fitch had not given due recognition to the country’s Covid-19 response efforts.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (left) addressing the virtual ASEAN summit in November 2020 (ASEAN Secretariat/Flickr)

Yet the downgrade was mainly because of the shifting political ground and governance problems. There could not have been a more damning reason for the decision. After all, most countries have been afflicted by the economic damage wrought by the panademic and have needed to resort to expansionary budgets with increased government debt. All that would have been necessary for Malaysia to convince the ratings agencies would have been a sensible roadmap to get the country out of its fiscal deficit and high government debt, along with a commitment to return to a state of fiscal balance. Either Malaysia failed to do this in adequate measure, or the ratings agencies judged the political climate to be an obstacle to achieving fiscal stability.

Even so, the downgrade is a temporary glitch. The Malaysian economy, in all likelihood, will recover in 2021 – provided the pandemic is under control. The World Bank expects that the economy will record a growth rate of about 6%, taking the country out of its fiscally distressing position.

There is concern that some investments have been going to neighbouring countries. Some of the investments that have been diverted away from the country have been viewed with concern, indicating possible investor aversion to Malaysia. Samsung and Apple factories are going to Vietnam, Amazon is building its data centre in Indonesia, an electric car battery factory from China is setting up a factory in Indonesia, and so is Hyundai.

Yet the outlook on foreign direct investment (FDI) may be less negative. All political parties know that FDI is Malaysia’s lifeline, and while the pressures of the times might take a toll on speed of responsiveness – slowing down approvals, for instance, with ministerial change priorities – those investors who have sunk their FDI in Malaysia will not pack up and leave, or at least they will not leave solely because of political uncertainties.

Undeniably, political stability is valuable. Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has made clear the need for certainty, saying he wants to hold snap elections once the pandemic is over. Nobody knows when that will be – parliament is suspended under emergency decree until at least August, while there is agitation whether this restriction should be lifted. All of which means that the Malaysian economy will have to put up with economic uncertainty for a while longer.

Finding one’s political self is not without cost.

What does the arrival of Covid vaccines mean for 2021?

It may seem like a miracle (Province of British Columbia/Flickr)
It may seem like a miracle (Province of British Columbia/Flickr)
Published 12 Jan 2021 11:30   0 Comments

On the eve of 2020, the first case of an unexplained SARS-like pneumonia was noticed in Wuhan. 2021 has begun with vaccines against Covid-19 already approved and mass vaccination campaigns rolling out.

But we also begin the year with almost 85 million people confirmed to have been infected by SARS-CoV-2 and nearly 2 million people dead. No vaccine has ever been developed in such a short time, and never has so much depended on the result. Will vaccines be the difference between 2020 and 2021?

It may not be so simple.

With more than 10,000 people dying every day from Covid (almost half in Europe and a third in the US), vaccines will not suddenly end the pandemic. Humanity needs a very sober view of 2021 and the limits of what vaccines alone can do, lest our actions today make our future even worse than it needs to be.

To end the pandemic, we need to achieve population immunity. That will take time: potentially as much as 18 months, based on current production forecasts. Population immunity also relies significantly on vaccines being roughly as effective at preventing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 as they are at preventing people exposed to the virus from developing Covid: the earliest data on how vaccines inhibit transmission is not expected until March. Until we achieve population immunity, we must continue the basic strategies: control borders, identify and isolate virus outbreaks, avoid crowds or confined spaces, wear masks and wash hands.

One of the least contentious issues is who should be prioritised for receiving vaccines. This life-and-death decision may be the least politicised and uncontentious question of the entire pandemic.

In places such as Europe and the US, where the virus is rampant, committing to these basics could potentially save a quarter of a million lives by the end of March. There is no chance that vaccines can provide population immunity earlier than that. Israel may have achieved 20% vaccination already, but it is an outlier, far ahead of larger and richer countries where scalability and coordination pose greater challenges.

Joe Biden will finally bring some helpful leadership to the US when he is inaugurated on 20 January, but current President Donald Trump is masterfully destroying the foundations of social trust. There are reports that many front-line workers in the US are refusing the vaccine. It may not be possible for the US to convince enough people to accept vaccinations for the country to ever achieve population immunity.  

In places such as Australia, where border control is critical, there remains little prospect of fully opening international boarders in 2021 (although quarantine places for vaccinated international students may be available by June, if things go well). The most optimistic vaccine results report 95% efficacy, which even with 100% uptake would still mean statistically that 20 people on every 400-seat plane could be carrying Covid. Vaccinations will soon be required for international arrivals, but that won’t be sufficient to open borders: Australia (and similar countries) will have to achieve population immunity first.

Another major challenge to the post-vaccine stage of the pandemic is political. The World Health Organisation is coordinating efforts to ensure vaccines are available to everyone around the globe, not just to the privileged few. But the politicisation of vaccines began early, with US President Trump leading efforts to monopolise global supplies.

China has capitalised on Trump’s inhumanity and selfishness by contrasting itself as a global actor, declaring that its (nationalistically branded) vaccines will be available to all. This is part of China’s diplomatic strategy for 2021: to demonstrate domestically that the Chinese Communist Party is more competent than Western governments and therefore is legitimate in ruling China, as well as to strengthen China’s “discourse power” by attempting to make itself the preferred partner of many developing countries (and even of Europe, if possible).

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (right) with UN Secretary-General António Guterres during a strategic briefing on Covid-19, Geneva, 24 February 2020 (Jean Marc Ferré/UN Photo)

But to paraphrase WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, it’s not vaccine promises but vaccinations that save lives. China’s proclamations about their generosity contrast with their efforts to use vaccines for strategic advancement, (allegations dismissed as “groundless” by Chinese state news agency Xinhua). And “vaccine diplomacy” also poses risks for China. China’s attempts at “mask diplomacy” blew up spectacularly, when threats to withhold PPE from countries that did not allow Huawei full access to their 5G infrastructure catalysed the full rejection of Huawei from the UK. The high rate of defective PPE also damaged global perceptions of China. If China’s vaccines are as shoddy as their PPE, it will be a much bigger problem.

Surprisingly, one of the least contentious issues is who (within countries) should be prioritised for receiving vaccines. This life-and-death decision may be the least politicised and uncontentious question of the entire pandemic – with broad agreement, there are three categories of people we would like to prioritise within countries: people who are vulnerable to death, people who are most likely to transmit the virus, and essential workers who can’t be protected in any other way. The elderly and front-line health workers (including quarantine guards) are broadly supported as first in line. Health workers (about 3% of the world’s population, but 14% of Covid infections) have more than earned whatever support they get.

That vaccines are now available at all seems like a miracle. But it’s actually the result of huge amounts of work, including general vaccine science done before Covid-19 existed. Having vaccines will ensure 2021 is not a repeat of 2020.

But we are in a much worse position now than we were at this time last year, having spent most of 2020 making terrible mistakes. Even vaccines will not solve our problems immediately, and maybe not even by the end of this year. The number of infections is facilitating mutations at a rate that could degrade the efficacy of vaccinations if we don’t act quickly.

As for our political problems, the world will receive a merciful substitution in the White House in just a handful of days, but as with vaccines, the presence of Biden will not solve all our problems immediately. 2020 may have been the year humanity made the biggest blunders since the Second World War. In 2021, we will have to deal with the consequences of that failure.

Main image courtesy of the Province of British Columbia

The vanishing hegemon

The age in which American economic and military dominance was buttressed by a missionary moral language is now past (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
The age in which American economic and military dominance was buttressed by a missionary moral language is now past (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Published 31 Dec 2020 07:00   2 Comments

During an end of year break, The Interpreter is again featuring select articles published throughout 2020. This piece was originally published on 20 April.

Has the corona crisis already changed the world? Many people certainly seem to think so. From doomsday prognoses of a collapse into a bio-authoritarian dystopia to cheerful visions of a rejuvenated benevolent state, commentators the world over have already identified 2020 as the date on which a new world was born.

Needless to say, the midst of a crisis is hardly the optimal vantage point from which to enjoy a synoptic historical view over the events that rage outside. Even as restrictions are being cautiously loosened, we seem to stand only at the end of the beginning of this story. Coronavirus has already left mountains of economic wreckage in its wake, even while vast swathes of the globe still await the full force of the virus’ first wave.

What is most striking about the current moment is not that the United States failed the world at a critical time: what matters is that the world, by and large, did not even look to Washington as the crisis hit.

But the verdicts are already being written. In recent weeks, Western critics have penned multiple obituaries for the world we have known since 1945. Globalisation, some have argued, has passed its tipping point. Liberalism is a spent force, democracy all the more so. The sheer impotence of international institutions has been exposed. China has fully arrived. And the United States – now the epicentre of virus outbreaks – has proved itself unwilling and incapable of coordinating any kind of global response: a confirmation of its deteriorating capacities both at home and abroad. The corona crisis, so runs this view, has accelerated the advent of a world that is at once terrifyingly novel and uncannily familiar: novel because it is multipolar and uncertain, but familiar because it seems to play on old motifs of nations, big states, borders, self-sufficiency and paranoia about outsiders.

And nothing demonstrates this state of affairs more forcefully than Washington’s response. One does not have to search far in this crisis to find pronouncements of a “post-American world”. Few, I suspect, would dispute that the pandemic has – whether to a greater or lesser extent – exposed the diminishing global influence of the United States.

Donald Trump’s proud mantra of “America First” now looks indistinguishable from “America Only” (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)


To be sure, this is evidently not a concern for Donald Trump himself, whose proud mantra of “America First” now looks indistinguishable from “America Only”. But it does reveal the weakening grip that Trump’s America holds on the global imagination. After all, what is most striking about the current moment is not that the United States failed the world at a critical time: what matters is that the world, by and large, did not even look to Washington as the crisis hit. In this respect, at least, the crisis has not changed the world: it has simply revealed some sobering truths.

Not all have been so hasty to write off the United States. For all of Trump’s apparent indifference to his country’s global image, the United States retains unparalleled reserves of global power. The numbers alone tell a remarkable story: American unemployment figures are rivalled in their unfathomable vastness by the sums of the government’s relief package and the Federal Reserve’s “booster shot” loan guarantee program. As Adam Tooze recently put it in the London Review of Books:

What we are witnessing in the American response to the crisis … is the gulf between the competence of the American government machine in managing global finance and the Punch and Judy show of its politics.

Be that as it may, this gulf between politics and power is nevertheless of vital importance to how the world will look in the coming years. America’s pretence (if not the reality) of moral leadership was always vital to its hegemonic position in the old world order. But, with Trump, the age in which American economic and military dominance was buttressed by a missionary moral language is now past, and it is exceptionally difficult to see how it might ever be reconstituted.

This shift did not begin with Trump, but he is every bit its embodiment. One’s mind is drawn back to a particular moment during the 2016 US presidential election, when Trump, questioned about his apparent ambivalence to the “killer”, Vladimir Putin, shot back with a case of whataboutery unprecedented for an American political leader: “There are a lot of killers”, Trump replied. “You think our country’s so innocent?” In two sentences, Trump unapologetically renounced that uniquely American sense of moral purpose in the world that had defined the rhetoric of every president since the Second World War. Four years on, the United States might still be the world’s dominant power – but it has become increasingly evident that this is altogether different from being its “leader”.

Not for some time has the connectivity of the world felt so threatened. But nor has it ever been so terrifyingly visible.

Shifts that have been taking place for some years are being exposed and accelerated as the pandemic spreads. For now, at least, the corona crisis is a public health crisis combined with an economic one and bound to generate transformative consequences in the political sphere as well. But it is not simply an event or an emergency. It is an unfolding process that is exposing in ever-starker ways the deep stress fractures in our global systems. It has told us much more about the recent past than it has about the future.

The reason for this is that the pandemic has not offered us a single narrative to tell. One can perhaps best visualise this global moment as the intersecting point between two temporal arcs: one showing the recursive, even cyclical time of politics, defined by the triumphant resurgence of nations and borders, the resuscitation of the muscular state, and the flexing of old-fashioned geopolitical rivalries; the other marked by the radical acceleration of global connectivity in science, in digital and surveillance technologies and – not least – in disease transmission itself. Not for some time has the connectivity of the world felt so threatened. But nor has it ever been so terrifyingly visible.

A pandemic was always a likely trigger for a “crisis of globalisation”. But is this really what we are witnessing? “Globalisation” was always a difficult – if not impossible – idea to pin down. It has been rethought and reconceptualised many times over. We would be making a fundamental error to assume that a hyper-connected world must necessarily be an American one. When we emerge from this phase in however many months’ time, the world we enter will be no less global and no less connected: but it may well be less American.


2020-04-20 06:00:00 +1000

Covering the Covid shock on The Interpreter in 2020

A virus of overlapping consequences (7C0/Flickr)
A virus of overlapping consequences (7C0/Flickr)
Published 24 Dec 2020 06:00   0 Comments

From the first days in January this year, the question that dominated the outbreak was how upfront Beijing had been about the novel coronavirus that became known as Covid-19. Richard McGregor:

So far, the handling of the crisis seems to have underlined one of the ongoing problems with the authoritarian strictures of the party-state, which places a premium on the control of information in the name of maintaining stability … Could the virus have been contained, and its spread limited, if officials in Wuhan had levelled with both their bosses, and the public, earlier? It is impossible to say, but at the moment, it certainly looks that way.

Still, the warning signs about the rapid spread of the virus – and what would result in more than 1.7 million deaths so far – did not translate into public trust, particularly in already politically stressed Hong Kong. Vivienne Chow:

An unprecedented level of panic is caused not just by fear, but by the lack of trust. Reactions of the people of Hong Kong and the international community are a vote of no confidence in the authorities’ abilities to protect people and contain the virus. Authorities here are not only the Hong Kong and the Chinese governments, but also the World Health Organisation, which is supposed to “lead partners in global health responses”.

Australia began to react with travel restrictions, buying time at a cost to the education and tourist industries, but Dominic Meagher warned “that time must now be used effectively”.

Three things must be done: eliminate panic, develop some form of treatment, vaccine, or cure, and put in place more sustainable policies to slow down the virus.

But by late February politics and prejudice had complicated the response around the world over. Audrey Jiajia Li:

With 28 countries so far reporting confirmed cases of the virus, caution over the mysterious deadly illness is expected and natural. Yet it is important to emphasise that Chinese people are the victims, not the culprits, of this epidemic.

South KoreaEurope, the United States, India and almost everywhere saw spiking rates of infection. The Tokyo Olympics were soon abandoned, Indonesia struggled and Pacific island nations feared the danger as lockdowns spread. Leaders felt the pressure to rise to the occasion. Michael Fullilove:

There has been a lot of discussion about the communications tools, including websites and texts, that governments are employing to speak with their nations about the coronavirus pandemic … The media noise being generated about Covid-19 is deafening – but the single note of a good speech, well delivered, can penetrate it.

And by the end of March, it was increasingly clear the virus would hold momentous consequences for the world. Daniel Flitton

The crisis will affect everything in some way, whether budget assumptions, global supply chains, or the trappings of power … drastic change [may be] later assimilated into a “new normal”, the point was still a major readjustment and far-reaching – and lasting – implications not only for the community, but also for relations between nations.

So The Interpreter examined the cross-cutting influence of the virus had on existing international challenges, whether the Hong Kong protest movement, poverty in India or the Philippines, migrant workers in Singapore, insurgency in Thailand, fighting the remnants of Islamic State, conflict in Afghanistan or tensions on the Korean peninsula. The crisis had a disproportionate impact on women, while the cost to the global economy was also manifesting. Roland Rajah:

The social distancing required to slow the virus – both voluntary and mandated by governments – means the economic hit is going to be large, and there’s probably not much that traditional demand-stimulus policies can do to materially counter it. In part, that’s because people won’t go out to spend the money, but it’s also because the virus is an intensifying supply-side shock as well – with big disruptions to normal business activity and many workers pulled out of work, either for health reasons or as workplaces and schools are temporarily shut down.

And if a first step to combating a problem is first understanding it, disinformation and conspiracy online was certainly no help. Natasha Kassam:

The dilution of information on the internet is currently posing a risk to global health and safety. Much like globalisation has extended the reach of the virus, social media has extended the reach of fake news. And the stakes are higher.

Austin, Texas (Ampersand72/Flickr)

Bright spots emerged. Enterprising Indonesians mixed their own hand sanitiser, and Bob Kelly – aka BBC Dad – had some helpful advice for those staring at a Zoom meeting working from home:

This will be a slog for the next several months, and my guess is that for all the convenience of telework, most people will enjoy going back to an office when this situation finally breaks.

Nick Bisley wondered at the future power dynamics in Asia. Mark Beeson asked what the crisis might hold for the vaunted international order?

Any of the big issues that collectively confront us – including climate change, economic disadvantage, and, of course, controlling pandemics – would seem to necessitate some form of institutionalised international collaboration.

Countries raced to develop vaccines while wrestling with the rights to privacy when tracing the virus spread. The future design of cities was questioned, we wondered about spies and the warning signs, protecting political leaders from the virus or whether they could strike a global bargain to do better next time?

Jennifer Hsu charted the growing power China’s Xi Jinping amid the pandemic, while Erin Hurley watched Donald Trump shrivel before the challenge. Meantime, Stephen Howes urged the world to remember those most vulnerable:

Covid-19 is hitting at a time when the number of displaced people is at its highest since the end of the Second World War. What if the virus takes hold in a massive refugee camp in Africa, the Middle East or Asia?

Should the world have been better prepared? Shahar Hameiri:

Used to financing and implementing limited interventions far from home, developed states’ governments were suddenly fighting huge contagions on the home front, for which they were often poorly prepared. And since very limited collective capacity had developed previously, their full focus immediately turned inwards, thus producing a fragmented, “zero-sum” response globally.

Or did the world overreact? Ramesh Thakur:

Health professionals are duty-bound to map the best- and worst-case scenarios. Governments bear the responsibility to balance health, economic and social policies. Once these are included in the decision calculus, the political and ethical justification for the hard suppression strategy is less obvious.

Perhaps, in the end, planning doesn’t matter. Gordon Peake and Christian Downie:

Magnified exponentially by these last few weeks, there seems something both absurd yet strangely comforting about feeling emboldened enough to guess a course for endpoints years away … [looking back] planning documents are proof-positive of that old Yogi Berra maxim that the most difficult thing to predict is the future.

Let’s see in 2021 if nature cares that humans can count in years.

Main image via Flickr user 7C0

The strange connections of isolation

Crowds unimagined before 2020 (Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images)
Crowds unimagined before 2020 (Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 22 Dec 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Today, as it has for nine months, the Australian government’s Smartraveller website tells me “do not travel”. Every country on the map is coloured red. To leave the country, I would need an exemption on compassionate grounds. Apparently it’s a high bar.

For the last few years, I averaged 100 flights a year, carbon-offset, commuting from Melbourne to Canberra and internationally. When I moved jobs recently, I was excited to reduce this to 75 and have more time with my family. I never imagined how much.

Working in the field of international relations, I think about what’s happening in the world and how it affects Australia. So when in January I hear of Covid-19, I begin to think about the impact on geopolitics. I imagine that there will be two types of countries: ones that have no hope of containing the virus and where it becomes endemic, as has happened in India, and ones which manage to contain the virus but then have to control their borders to prevent reinfection, as occurred in New Zealand.

Until a vaccine is widely available, the cost of controlling the virus will be closing off to keep danger outside. The risk will be closing off international engagement.

That’s the dual challenge for Australia in 2020: how to deal with the pandemic without cutting itself off from the world. This is my story of a year in isolation spent thinking about connection.

A city changed by pandemic, Melbourne in June (r reeve/Flickr)

In January, everyone’s focus is on China. I give a talk to the Office of National Intelligence focusing on what Covid-19 means for Beijing.

If they’ve been to China recently, teachers at my Chinese language classes go into self-isolation, well ahead of any government advice. One of the students, in his 70s, asks me to tell him my travel history. I’m not offended. I just transited through Hong Kong on my way back from New Delhi. I could have caught the virus. I was lucky.

I go to a City of Melbourne function where the Town Hall facade is floodlit red to show support, with hundreds chanting “Wuhan jiāyóu”. Later I ask my teacher to translate, and she says it’s like barracking – so perhaps “C’arn Wuhan”, making it rhyme.

I hashtag #IWillEatWithYou when I visit my favourite Chinese restaurant.

As I drop my son off in Canberra for his first year at university – with bushfires still smoking, one tragedy bleeding into another – there are signs at the student accommodation telling returning students how to self-isolate. They’re lucky to get back in time.

As the borders close and the air routes shut, it’s bad luck if you aren’t where you want to be.

By February, Australia closes its borders to China. Returnees from Wuhan uncomplainingly quarantine at Christmas Island then Darwin. The Chinese strain of the virus never reaches significant transmission. The first wave silently moving through the Australian community mainly comes from travellers from the United States, Europe and cruise ships.

Australia closes the border to Iran, but not to the US. My father in Mornington would probably know some of the crowd who brought back infections from Aspen in the US. Again, we’re just lucky.

I speak at a function to develop future leaders’ Asia capability. No one knows whether to shake hands, and it makes us sheepish. I talk about the stereotypes of how Asians see Australia: as subservient, selfish, rich, racist, transactional and moralistic. And how we can try to counter these.

In March I start planning to work from home. My graduate colleague tells me his three housemates have already lost their jobs and have moved back with their parents.

People organising conferences don’t want to cancel. But employers and insurers are nervous about travel. I pick up my visa for an Indian defence conference the day the borders slam shut.

My last normal moment: seeing the Women’s T20 World Cup Final. I hesitate, but I go and celebrate amid the 86,000 Australians and Indians crowded in Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Early in the lockdown, I conscientiously do yoga on my balcony every day. Passenger planes have almost disappeared from the sky. Now I only see the tiny props. And the helicopters landing on the hospital roof.

As the borders close and the air routes shut, it’s bad luck if you aren’t where you want to be. I interview diplomats about their work repatriating 16,500 stranded Australians, even using a cargo plane delivering cyclone aid to give Australians a ride home.

Then the virus is loose from Melbourne quarantine. The cap on arrivals is reduced. It’s reported that 25,000 then 27,000 Australians are unable to return from overseas.

A colleague shares that she can’t visit her dying father in the US. She wants to go, but isn’t sure she’ll be allowed back. It’s the right call. Later I see news of a small boy stuck visiting his grandparents in Vietnam. His parents look beside themselves.

Grounded planes in Adelaide (Michael Coghlan/Flickr)


Prime Minister Scott Morrison tells international students and temporary visa holders to return to their home countries. Many can’t. I talk to a graduating student who can’t go back to Mongolia because the border is closed. It takes seven months. Another from Mauritius quickly organises her enrolment so her visa doesn’t run out. She knows of friends stuck sleeping in airports, unable to stay or go.

With no jobs and no federal assistance, a line of international students snakes around Melbourne Town Hall for food relief. I’m thankful someone is doing something. Then a Brazilian student tells me how Australia’s response is being compared to the generosity of Canada and the United Kingdom. On social media, those who feel abandoned are telling future students not to come.

I keep checking on my “hostee”, a scholarship student from Bangladesh. I joined the University of Melbourne’s welcome program when I heard that most international students never go inside an Australian home. I can’t ask her to visit, but I pay a taxi to deliver toys for her daughter.

I write about the war of words between the US and China over Covid-19. Will the US end up being seen as the victim of external forces or its own mismanagement? Will China end up being seen as the country that unleashed the virus or the one that showed the world how to overcome it? Lowy Institute polling shows that Australians are unimpressed with both.

In April, all alone, Australia calls for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, which China views as targeting it. China’s ambassador wonders aloud why Chinese consumers would support a country that is not so friendly, even hostile. Eventually Australia works with other countries to adopt a more neutral proposal, but the damage is done.

Artswest, University of Melbourne (a.canvas.of.light/Flickr)

Asian-Australians report an increase in racial abuse. An Indonesian colleague says he thinks people are standing further away from him, but how would you know? When two international students are attacked at the University of Melbourne, I listen to the Vice-Chancellor’s angry, disgusted condemnation. The Australian National University’s Centre for Asian-Australian Leadership encourages people to call out racism.

I give a webinar on optimism in international relations. I talk about disaster fiction and why the worst-case scenarios won’t eventuate. I survey the audience and find the optimism count has gone up. So that’s my good deed for the month.

In Chinese class, I’m making progress. It’s cheering to be able to do something I couldn’t before. On Twitter, I encourage colleagues who have gone back to learning Japanese and Indonesian. An act of hope that one day we’ll be able to use our halting skills to connect.

I still have nightmares that I’m about to miss a plane, even though they’re almost all grounded.

The collapse of international air travel is unprecedented. Even in the Second World War, a route operated. You’d have to go back to the First Fleet awaiting resupply.

Indigenous Australians were never isolated. They had trade and cultural ties. For National Reconciliation Week in May, I organise a seminar looking at First Nations’ connections with Macassans. Even with no common language, they managed to establish mutually beneficial seasonal trade.

I still have nightmares that I’m about to miss a plane, even though they’re almost all grounded. On a cold night, I dream of my trip to Antarctica with my daughter last year. If we’d travelled 12 months later, we would have been on one of the plague ships going from harbour to harbour, rejected by all. The Greg Mortimer is allowed to dock in Montevideo because today’s leaders remember Australia’s compassion to refugees fleeing Uruguay’s dictatorship in the 1970s. What you give now will be returned to you.

At end of financial year, I donate to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. It’s estimated that more than 1.1 million temporary visa holders in Australia can’t access any government support. My body isn’t big enough to hold the shame.

My son comes home from university for semester break. As Melbourne’s second wave rolls in – not due to the Black Lives Matter protests, despite the relentless misinformation – he makes it back to Canberra just in time before the border with Victoria is closed. Our neighbours in the North Melbourne government housing towers are shut in, the beginning as the city tips into one of the world’s longest lockdowns.

Melbourne’s government housing towers, some of which were locked down hard following a Covid-19 outbreak (David Jackmanson/Flickr)

Australia releases its new international development policy Partnerships for Recovery. I write on the biggest negative: no new money, just reallocating the funds for volunteers and scholars who can no longer travel. In the last six years, Australia’s overseas development program has been cut by 27%. Australians think we spend 14% of the federal budget on aid. It’s 0.8%.

Australia releases its Defence Strategic Update in July. The headline figure is $270 billion (that’s 67 years of the aid budget). I write on the tendency to view international issues through a security lens and the self-fulfilling prophecy of treating China as an enemy. Former defence secretary Dennis Richardson warns against “national security cowboys” putting the nation’s interests at unnecessary risk. The Lowy Poll reports the five threats that concern Australians most: drought, pandemics, global economic downturn, environmental disasters and climate change. None will be helped by military hardware.

Shadow foreign affairs minister Penny Wong calls on Australia to develop greater foreign policy ambition, bringing a similar sense of urgency and purpose as we did to suppressing the virus at home.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade cuts jobs.

I’m on a panel with Australian Institute of International Affairs national president Allan Gyngell, who says that in the new Covid-19 world, Australia will be poorer, weaker and more isolated. I write on foreign policy identity politics and the danger of playing with Australia’s security for domestic advantage.

In August, the government announces a foreign relations bill to give Foreign Minister Marise Payne power to veto international arrangements made by local councils, state governments and universities. I write against it. Have we reached the point where these are suspect: a semester abroad, a student home stay, a trade mission, an arts exchange?

When I appear at a Senate inquiry into the legislation, I’m not asked to denounce the Chinese Communist Party, but three Chinese-Australians are.

In a tit-for-tat between Canberra and Beijing that only becomes clear over time, ASIO raids Chinese journalists’ homes in an investigation into a NSW parliamentarian and his staffer. Journalists from the last two Australian media outlets with a presence in China are spirited home.

In September, I sit on the selection panel for New Colombo Plan scholarships for young Australians to study and work across Asia. For three days on Zoom, I hear brilliant, motivated students talking about their great plans for 2021. I check in with one of the previous winners, who never got to travel. She says she’ll go when we’re back to normal, soon. In lockdown, I’ve got used to having no desires for the future. Hope hurts.

A new normal (Jay Phagan/Flickr)

In class, we look at a brochure for Chinese tourists and plan a sightseeing tour of Melbourne. I suggest Puffing Billy railway and Healesville Sanctuary zoo. I think about all the attractions and livelihoods gone. Lavender farms and opal stores and the Great Ocean Road.

More could be done to let tourists visit Australia. Those from places where Covid-19 is endemic might not mind quarantining to live like they did before: a sort of time travel to a pre-Covid era. There’s a deep human need to experience. I’m old enough to remember that before travel was easy and affordable, it was an adventure which could change your life. That’s what I’d choose to use my carbon allotment for: the sights and sounds of new encounters.

I realise that I haven’t left the house in three months, my daughter in six. My husband is immunocompromised. This changes your calculation. Is this outing really worth risking his life?

Australia does best when it’s open to the world, not in times of isolation and economic nationalism.

I speak by video to a friend in Rhode Island. The US case numbers are extraordinary, yet life is mostly going on as normal around him. We’re living in different worlds.

Qantas airline asks if I want to buy a case of the little wine bottles they used to serve in-flight. I buy some. I think it might help me drink less.

The university sector is in crisis. Our third-largest export industry joining tourism, our fourth. For universities, the disaster feels deliberate. Government decisions had consequences: citizens and permanent residents could return, but those with a student visa could not. JobKeeper, the government support package for workers during the pandemic, was amended three times to ensure that universities weren’t covered. Pilot programs for a few hundred international students to return to South Australia and the ACT are announced then postponed. It’s the end of November before a plane with 63 students returns via Darwin. Proposals from student accommodation providers are rebuffed. With no plan for 2021, there’s no hope for first semester enrolments. Education used to contribute $37 billion to the Australian economy.

A lesson from lockdown: 24-hour news doesn’t make you feel connected. But parcels do.

Someone says she works night shift at the supermarket fulfilling online orders, and without even thinking I thank her for her service. I mean it.

Australia was not the only country to see panic buying (dmbosstone/Flickr)

I’m not in Canberra for the federal budget announcement in October. I can’t go five kilometres from my house. Online I check that, yes, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s funding allocation is the lowest percentage in Australia’s history. There’s a tiny piece of good news: $300 million to fight Covid-19 in the Pacific and Timor-Leste.                                

I look at the money being spent in the budget – the biggest in my lifetime – and wonder where Australia’s future prosperity will come from. Not education and tourism.

Young people are bearing the brunt of this pandemic. What plan are they being offered? On climate, 60% of Australians want the economic recovery to be driven by renewables. But gas chooses itself.

Someone posts on LinkedIn that she listened to the budget with tears in her eyes, feeling we’re all in this together. I can only think of who’s been left out.

The third of our exports that go to China are looking shaky. Chinese investment in an Australian dairy company is blocked on national interest grounds. Getting out of a recession while antagonising our largest trading partner will be tough.

Australia does best when it’s open to the world, not in times of isolation and economic nationalism. We’re a country of immigrants, with half of Australians born overseas or with a parent who was.

Without migration, our economy won’t grow. It’s estimated that Australia will be half a million smaller in 2022, with flow-on effects from construction to retail. Migration could restart with user-pays quarantine, but it’s not on the agenda.

I read that a primary school is cancelling its long-standing Vietnamese program to teach Italian instead. Vietnam has been a big winner this year, and its economy is projected to double in the next decade. When we indulge in nostalgia, we hurt ourselves.

I write on how the US election may mean the end of Australia’s American dream.

Are we taking some first steps towards the long-hoped-for travel bubble? New Zealanders travel to Sydney without quarantining. The first chance to see a granddaughter. The first kiss in eight months. When it goes wrong – the Kiwis don’t stay put – it doesn’t build confidence.

After a false start, it’s announced that Darwin will again host returnees. Repatriation flights restart from London. Then Johannesburg and New Delhi. There haven’t been commercial flights from India for seven months. A maths problem: if the Northern Territory takes 500 returnees a fortnight, how many months will it take to get the now 32,000 home?

A group of Australians stuck in the Philippines are trying to charter a boat to return.

Then 26 October is double doughnut day. No new cases, no deaths. An exhausted Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announces an end to Melbourne’s lockdown after 111 days. Only a handful of places – Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong – have so successfully defeated a second wave.

A traveller walks past an advertising display screen at Sydney International Airport in March (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

My husband tells me that in July, Victoria had the same infection rate as France. The day Melbourne comes out of lockdown, France records 36,000 new cases. Its economy is among the worst-hit worldwide, along with the UK and Spain. State premiers were right not to see it as economy-versus-health.

In its downward spiral, the relationship with China hits a new low. Economic punishment signals China’s displeasure. Sector after sector is hit: barley, beef, lamb, wine, timber, cotton, coal – even lobsters. Scott Morrison demands an apology for an offensive tweet. I can’t see any sign that Australia has a plan to repair the relationship.

In November Victoria celebrates elimination day. Western Australia lifts its hard border. We deserve to congratulate ourselves. Yes, there will be outbreaks that will need to be contained quickly: in Adelaide, in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. But we’ve shown that we can.

I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved within Australia. I’m sad and frustrated about our lack of vision for anything beyond. Can we count on staying lucky as the world gets more contested and harder to navigate?

I speak on a panel with former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane. He describes a “fortress Australia” mindset that’s taking hold. A mentality where Australia is retreating inward and views everything outside as a threat.

I watch independent MP Zali Stegall speak in parliament to introduce a Climate Bill. She warns that Australia will be isolated from our trading partners if we remain out of line with international expectations. Putting our head in the sand is not a solution.

I look up at the sky and see a plane. It’s December and there’s a passenger plane landing in Melbourne. Perhaps 2021 will be different. Can Australia face outwards with ambition? Or will we cut ourselves off from the world?

Favourites of 2020: Running for nothing?

(Bruno Nascimento/Unsplash)
(Bruno Nascimento/Unsplash)
Published 21 Dec 2020 12:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Look back on the series and watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead.

Any runner with a shoebox full of medals knows that victory is sweetly remembered through the shiny keepsakes bestowed upon those of us lucky enough to cross the finish line. This year saw the rise of virtual races and perhaps the most epic challenge of all, the quarantine backyard ultra-marathon.

With no starting line-up or electric crowd atmosphere, lone runners took to their neighbourhoods. They covered hundreds of kilometres around suburban streets. A dedicated few racked up the miles back and forth with tiny laps inside the relative safety of their own homes. Covid-19 might have struck seemingly out of the blue, but for the runner who had 2020 goals in mind, the months of training for race preparation was not to go to waste.

Perhaps for the unconquerable few who trained with masks on, they will have earned a competitive advantage.

The running community have managed to build themselves a new absurd form of racing, which will likely go on to be a new tradition for the now well-connected global running “club”.

For those of us who felt isolated and left wondering how to fill the hours when the Covid-19 storm hit in March, we could be grateful that in some countries outside exercise was considered essential for physical and mental wellbeing. Although not all have been so lucky. Perhaps a collective thought should go out to the Australian runner in Beijing caught breaching strict quarantine

It goes without saying that a sense of normalcy will be welcomed with open arms in the world of running, and perhaps for the unconquerable few who trained with masks on they will have earned a competitive advantage. For them, any virtual race bling might be remembered even sweeter. Here’s mine.

How extremist messaging co-opts emergency events

(Leandro Mazzuquini/Unsplash)
(Leandro Mazzuquini/Unsplash)
Published 21 Dec 2020 11:00   0 Comments

Australia experienced two major emergency events in 2020 – the summer bushfires followed shortly after by the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout these events, social media played a critical role in providing information, facilitating social connection and public discussions.

However, there was also a deluge of mis- and disinformation, often spread through coordinated networks. A worrying and persistent element emerged within such networks – extremist messaging by inauthentic accounts that exploited emergency events to magnify their content and recruit followers.

In early January, I tracked a set of 300 fringe, hyper-partisan Twitter accounts that were pushing the #ArsonEmergency hashtag. I was initially alerted to their activity due to automated bot and troll detection tools, which showed a significantly higher proportion of suspicious activity compared to other hashtags. This hashtag, which parodied the popular hashtag #ClimateEmergency, was the centrepiece of a discredited campaign that arson, and not climate change, was the cause of the bushfires.

False claims of Asian people deliberately lighting bushfire

In this network I observed a worrying amount of problematic content that bumped up against, and in some cases went over, the margins of hate speech, racism and incitement to violence. The example above shows a tweet of an unsubstantiated claim that a “man of Asian descent” was lighting fires – notably, it includes the hashtags #DomesticTerrorism and #ShootToKill. This is an attempt to legitimise the use of violence against particular sub-groups, which fits alongside other baseless claims that other groups such as environmentalists and Muslims were conspiring to light bushfires on purpose.

It is no surprise that Twitter has since suspended one in 20 prominent accounts in this #ArsonEmergency network. The figure below shows the follower network for these accounts, filtered to focus on the most prominent nodes (accounts with more than 20 in-links or “follows” from other accounts). Suspended accounts are shown in red (6% of total), deleted accounts are blue (5% of total), and active accounts are white (89%).

A follower network analysis of prominent #ArsonEmergency accounts (filtered to show accounts that are followed by at least 20 other accounts). Red nodes are suspended, blue are deleted and white are still active (as of 15 December)

Echoes of this #ArsonEmergency and extremist activity were also observed in the United States during the wildfires in Oregon and Washington during September. False rumours circulated on social media that left-wing “antifa” activists were deliberately lighting fires, which led to armed right-wing vigilante groups threatening people in rural communities. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon debunked these rumours and pleaded with citizens to follow official information in order to enable authorities to deal with the fires and minimise loss of life and property damage.

A concerning trend among the #ArsonEmergency account network was the promotion of platforms which are less constrained by content moderation such as Parler and Gab. A number of accounts actively try to recruit people to “free speech” platforms that allow more extremist content, such as far-right and QAnon conspiracy theories (QAnon is now heavily moderated on Twitter). Indeed, QAnon has been labelled as a domestic terror threat in the US, given its advocacy of violence and its anti-Semitic attitudes.

The example below shows the profile of the most active account posting #ArsonEmergency tweets, including a link to Parler and a call-to-action: “Find me on Parler”.

The profile of the most active #ArsonEmergency account

This marketing of alternative platforms aligns with recent concerns that content moderation on major platforms is driving users to self-moderated platforms that are echo chambers of extreme and hateful content. In this way, far-right Twitter networks in Australia are co-opting crisis and emergency events as a staging ground for radicalising individuals into groups such as QAnon. In the process, these accounts weaponise Twitter’s content moderation policies as “evidence” of their conspiracies, using it to drive traffic onto self-moderated platforms where extremist messaging finds safe harbour.

Shortly after the Australian bushfires, the Covid-19 pandemic provided unprecedented opportunities for far-right extremist groups such as QAnon to evolve and spread their messages and networks. In Australia, the pandemic was swiftly politicised and social media activity polarised into a hyper-partisan battleground.

We still have no idea how big and/or active such cross-platform networks are, so mapping these and understanding their dynamics is critical.

The Victorian “second wave” outbreak provides an illustrative case study. Both social and mainstream media were polarised into two camps: those who supported Victorian Premier Dan Andrews’ handling of the outbreak (the #IStandWithDan tweeters) and those who opposed it (#DictatorDan and #DanLiedPeopleDied).

During the various stages of Victorian coronavirus restrictions, social media became a vector to foment anti-lockdown sentiment and protests, culminating in violent clashes with Victorian police. At the same time, Sinophobic memes of Dan Andrews circulated on Twitter and Facebook, keying into racist narratives and hashtags that conflate Chinese identity with the virus. Indeed, the #DanLiedPeopleDied hashtag is a memetic play on the problematic hashtag #ChinaLiedPeopleDied, which features alongside Sinophobic hashtags such as #WuhanFlu and #ChinaVirus.

This online activity was contextualised by an increase in racist attacks and slurs against Asian people both in Australia and globally. Extremist messaging was not solely directed at ethnic minorities. Female journalists also received abuse from a small but vocal core of extremist pro-lockdown activists, including abhorrent threats of physical and sexual violence.

More research is needed to understand how emergency events are co-opted by extremists to push problematic content and build their networks. How successful are these cross-platform recruitment strategies from Twitter to platforms such as Parler and Gab? We still have no idea how big and/or active such cross-platform networks are, so mapping these and understanding their dynamics is critical.

Similarly, how can researchers develop better methods to detect when hyper-partisan organic networks are infiltrated and co-opted by extremists? The distinction is often subtle and requires temporal analysis of large-scale data combined with careful qualitative close reading and digital forensics.

Finally, we need renewed efforts to advocate for better data access for researchers and transparency from social media companies. Public health and safety are directly proportional to the health and accountability of our social media ecosystems.

This article is part of a year-long series examining extremism and technology also available at the Global Network on Extremism and Technology, of which the Lowy Institute is a core partner.

Learning from an island in a pandemic

Reykjavik, Iceland (L. Toshio Kishiyama/Getty Images)
Reykjavik, Iceland (L. Toshio Kishiyama/Getty Images)
Published 18 Dec 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Through a quirk in circumstances, I presently find myself sheltering from the pandemic in Iceland. I wouldn’t consider myself stranded like other overseas Australians. I am here due to personal necessity and because the country is a relatively safe place. While the recent success of my home city of Melbourne in eliminating Covid-19 has afforded it the ability to open up in time for an almost normal summer, Reykjavík’s long, dark and cold winter is providing a natural incentive to stay indoors and limit the virus’s spread.

For Iceland, the effects of the pandemic have been far more structural than biological. Like Australia, the country has an advantageous geography that has allowed it a certain degree of insulation. Yet unlike other island nations such as New Zealand or Taiwan, Iceland’s government has opted for a strategy of suppression, rather than elimination. This is proving reasonably effective.

The country has recorded 28 deaths from the virus – a comparatively low rate that is partially due to its small population, but also due to a highly competent contact-tracing regime that has worked quickly to isolate cases and minimise transmissions. While in the past month European countries have seen an explosion in cases, Iceland has been hovering between 10 and 20 daily cases. A stubborn but manageable caseload for the country’s healthcare system.

The country is again looking to realign itself, this time as a niche market for those who are able to work remotely, spend enthusiastically and wish to reside in a relatively pandemic-safe environment.

This suppression strategy is born from the country’s complex relationship with Europe. While Iceland has remained outside the European Union, it has nevertheless become intertwined with the European structures that it has deemed valuable. It is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) which links Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway to the rules of the EU’s single market, and was an early and enthusiastic member of the Council of Europe, the body that seeks to govern the continent’s basic ideals. But crucially in regard to the pandemic, Iceland is a member of the Schengen Area, effectively making it impossible to fully isolate itself from the continent’s current woes.

Instead, the government has required all arrivals into the country to pre-register with their contact details, as well as to submit themselves to a Covid-19 test at the airport, which can be turned around in a matter of hours. Arrivals are then required to isolate for five days, before taking a second test. This approach has so far proved effective.

While Iceland has been unable to close its borders to Europe, the country has implemented stricter measures for countries outside the region. The government has created a small list of eight countries whose residents pose a minimal risk in transmitting the disease and are therefore permitted to enter the country, Australia being one. However, the border remains closed to major sources of tourism such as the United States, Canada and China.

It is in tourism that the effects of the pandemic have been most keenly felt, effects created by Iceland’s unique recent economic history. In 2008, Iceland had a booming and oversized financial services sector, with its three largest banks holding assets that were valued at ten times the size of the country’s overall GDP. As a result, when the global financial crisis struck, it hit Iceland hard. These banks collapsed. The local currency plunged in value, savings were lost and unemployment soared. Unlike the US, Iceland refused to bail out its banks and even imprisoned senior bank executives. What the country also did was pivot its economy.

“Sun voyager” sculpture in Reykjavik (Arian Zwegers/Flickr)

Over the next decade, tourism emerged to become Iceland’s dominant industry, accounting for almost half of the country’s export revenue, and employing around 16% of the population. Its singular and spectacular geography became seen as a far more tangible and reliable asset than the vagaries of high finance. Attracting an endless stream of wide-eyed tourists seemed like a permanent economic advantage. By 2018, the country was host to 2.3 million annual visitors, over six times the country’s resident population of just under 370,000 people.

However, the unforeseeable pandemic has now burst this bubble as well. The array of budget airlines that once funnelled hordes of tourists into Iceland from European and American cities have ceased operations. Currently regular flights are only entering the country from Denmark – where there is a significant Icelandic diaspora – and Poland, whose citizens have come to dominate Iceland’s fish processing and construction industries.

Reykjavík’s main thoroughfare, a street that embodies Iceland’s economic shift, now lies semi-dormant. Its shops selling outdoor essentials and unique Icelandic wares are empty, while its cafés and restaurants that would usually be filled with hungry tourists are sparsely populated.

Yet, the enterprising spirit of the country has also seen an opportunity in the pandemic. Iceland now seeks to capitalise on the world’s shift to remote work. If you are from outside the Schengen Area, and able to enter Iceland without a visa (as Australians are), your visa-free stay can now extend from three months to six. However, there is a catch. In order to qualify you must be earning more than A$10,000 a month (a criteria I very much do not meet).

The country is again looking to realign itself, this time as a niche market for those who are able to work remotely, spend enthusiastically and wish to reside in a relatively pandemic-safe environment.

And if this year holds a lesson, “remote” is a term in need of redefinition.

Avoiding a “lost decade” in the Pacific

Hotel is closed, Fiji – one of Suva’s biggest resorts shuttered by the pandemic in May (Elena Gerasimova/ILO)
Hotel is closed, Fiji – one of Suva’s biggest resorts shuttered by the pandemic in May (Elena Gerasimova/ILO)
Published 16 Dec 2020 10:00   0 Comments

The horror year that has been 2020 is thankfully coming to an end with a dose of welcome optimism, now that vaccines are on the way. But the end is still far from within sight for many of Australia’s Pacific island neighbours.

In a new Lowy Institute policy brief, we argue that the Pacific is staring at a potential “lost decade”, owing to the economic damage wrought by the pandemic. Many more Pacific islanders will be left unable or struggling to meet their basic needs, and the prospects for a more stable, prosperous and secure region will be greatly reduced.

Regardless of what others do, Australia has a special interest in helping the Pacific.

None of this scenario would be in Australia’s interests and would reflect poorly on the country as a friend in the region. Australia should do all that it reasonably can to avoid it.

Remoteness has helped the Pacific escape the worst of the health implications from the pandemic. Yet the grim reality is that the economic devastation is still set to be among the most severe anywhere in the world. This is owing to the region’s heavy reliance on key income sources badly affected by the crisis, especially international tourism, and the inability of Pacific governments to mount anywhere near the fiscal firepower needed to limit the damage, as richer nations have done. Fiji’s tourism-dependent economy is the worst affected and expected to contract by more than 20%.

The costs of the crisis are also likely to be especially long-lasting. By our projections, average income per person in the Pacific will not recover to its 2019 level until 2028 – a Pacific lost decade. And there remain plenty of downside risks to this outlook.

While overcoming the pandemic is the top priority, fiscal stimulus will be the key to enabling a strong post-pandemic recovery. We estimate that the Pacific will need at least A$5 billion (US$3.5 billion) over the next few years in additional stimulus spending to fully recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.

Most would need to go towards productive investments that can be quickly scale up in areas such as infrastructure, capital maintenance and climate change adaptation. Some should also go towards social priorities (for which the economic pay-off is more long term) such as health, education and income support for struggling households.

Pacific governments will not be able to finance this themselves – having little access to private capital markets and being reliant on overseas aid. It will therefore fall to the region’s development partners to play the leading role in financing the Pacific’s recovery.

Expanded international debt relief could play a useful role in some Pacific island economies to free up the necessary resources. This mostly relates to large loans from China to Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu. Increased financing from the multilateral development banks is also an option via either the adoption of less conservative capital adequacy rules or new financial contributions from donor governments.

Regardless of what others do, Australia has a special interest in helping the Pacific. The Australian government is already doing a lot. It has in particular already increased its international financial assistance via the establishment of a special A$300 million Covid-19 response package for the Pacific and committed half a billion dollars to roll out vaccines in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

Unloading Australian-funded Covid-19 response supplies in Honiara, Solomon Islands in April (DFAT/Flickr)

These are significant measures. Nonetheless, it still does not come close to matching the scale of a once-in-a-century crisis nor Australia’s interest in minimising the damage this inflicts to the region.

We argue Australia should establish a $2 billion Covid-19 recovery financing facility for the Pacific. Australia normally provides about 40% of all financial assistance to the region, so this would be in line with Australia’s “fair share” and role as the Pacific’s leading development partner.

The facility should provide funding in the form of outright grants as much as possible. However, as political appetite may be limited, the use of appropriately structured loans is also feasible as a lower cost option in helping reach the full scale of financing required. From a Pacific debt sustainability perspective, the economic returns from recovery spending can offset the cost of increased future debt service payments associated with borrowing to finance the recovery.

The arguments for Australia establishing a recovery financing facility for the Pacific are similar to those justifying the huge increase in domestic Australian government spending that has taken place in response to the pandemic – historically low long-term government borrowing costs and high returns to investing in the recovery now, in order to avoid the far worse alternative of allowing economies, and societies, to be permanently set back.

Having made its own fair share contribution, Australia would then be in a strong position to advocate for others in the international community also to step up in helping the Pacific avoid a lost decade.

Favourites of 2020: A lockdown loaf

Sourdough, by Ian Bruce
Sourdough, by Ian Bruce
Published 11 Dec 2020 14:00   0 Comments

An end-of-year series as the Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors offer their favourite books, articles, films or TV programs this year. Look back on the series and watch for more recommendations and reflections in the days ahead.

A year like no other. From global pandemics to climate change to the US presidential election, there was no shortage of crises this year. We lurched from one to another. As I worked from home, the amount of news I consumed increased exponentially. Anxiety levels increased the more I read. There was a sense of helplessness – the inability to see family and friends within Australia, let alone internationally.

Sure, I can write about my favourite book, podcast, films, TV program … things consumed to take the edge off the year. But surely, the zeitgeist for 2020 has to be the sourdough.

To our family and friends in the Northern hemisphere facing a second wave and a winter like no other, keep Zooming and keep baking.

In February, before lockdown happened, I started my own sourdough starter. For those in the know, sourdough starter takes a month or so to cultivate before it is ready to bake bread. When we were ready to start baking in March, we were facing shortages. Whatever flour we could locate went to the sourdough baking/stress-buster project. Ironically, locating flour became a stress in itself.

When The Economist and Financial Times publish articles and “how-to” videos, we know we have reached peak sourdough. Even Barack Obama has his own sourdough starter.

The act of creating something with your own hands and the meditative effect of kneading the dough gives back some of the power that the lockdown took away. In the face of chaos and financial scarcity, bread making and cooking in general provide a sense of achievement and gratification.

Yes, everyone was at it and every post on Instagram was of a sourdough loaf. We might be in isolation, but when it came to baking bread, we were part of a community – sharing in the highs and lows of each loaf.

To our family and friends in the Northern hemisphere facing a second wave and a winter like no other, keep Zooming and keep baking. As Sydney eases its way out of the pandemic, we have not discarded the sourdough project – rather it has become a ritual of our household to enjoy the smell and taste of freshly baked bread each week, and it reminds us of the community we have joined.

Sourdough starter: Holger

Women, peace and security are not only wartime issues

The runner-up image in the Freedom from Violence Photo Competition, 2010 (Deeksha Singh via UN Women Asia and the Pacific)
The runner-up image in the Freedom from Violence Photo Competition, 2010 (Deeksha Singh via UN Women Asia and the Pacific)
Published 8 Dec 2020 10:30   0 Comments

Many women fight wars every single day within their homes. This is not the violence of wars that features on the nightly news, but something far more insidious – a hidden conflict that is far more costly. Domestic violence is rampant, within both developed and developing countries, yet is a problem too often ignored. As the world marks the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking Women, Peace and Security Resolution, which recognised internationally the gendered impacts of war, it is a chance to fix this.

Around one in three women worldwide experiences sexual or physical violence, most likely perpetrated by a former or current male partner. Economist Anke Hoeffler has found that violence against women costs the world more than civil wars and terrorism. Instances of intimate partner violence, overwhelmingly against women, cost the global economy around $4.4 trillion – nearly half the total cost of all forms of violence. In Australia, the cost is put at $21.7 billion. These costs come from direct factors such as medical care, but also indirect factors such as loss of potential earnings. Strikingly, this figure is likely an underestimate of the true cost of domestic violence, because most survivors do not seek help.

A narrow understanding of violence has come at the expense of not only who is paid attention to, but also where they live. According to the OECD, more than 35% of women living in countries such as the United States, as well as more progressive nations such as New Zealand, have experienced intimate partner violence. But developed nations do not prioritise preventing domestic violence in the same way as fighting wars in other countries. In the United States, government spending on the Office on Violence Against Women equalled less than 1% of annual expenditure on defence in 2020, and less than 1% of the economic cost of domestic violence. In National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien’s statement marking the Women, Peace and Security Resolution’s anniversary, the physical insecurity of women living in the United States was not even mentioned.

A narrow understanding of violence is also costing women their lives. Globally, the United Nations predicts that 137 women are killed by a family member every day. Women are even killed by men in nations considered safe by global standards. In Australia, where researchers claim women have “fairly high levels of physical security”, every single week one woman, on average, is killed.

A memorial to victims of domestic violence in Brisbane, Australia (John/Flickr)

Ending wartime violence and ending violence against women are not mutually exclusive. Covid-19 must serve as a reminder of the need to broaden the understanding of violence to include the experiences of all women. Because Covid-19 has made the war women are fighting worse.

For many women, shelter-in-place policies created to limit the spread of Covid-19 limited their freedoms. It forced them to be locked indoors with the very men who abuse them. Many women were unable to seek assistance through traditional means, such as hotlines, due to constant monitoring by abusers. Covid-19 also created new triggers for violence against women to fester – from loss of control to economic stresses. Many service providers have reported an increase in severity of instances of violence.

It’s taken the struggle with Covid-19 for some governments to recognise the violence in the lives of women.

Nearly every single country with data has reported an increase in calls to hotlines. When Covid-19 hit, the UN Population Fund predicted that an additional 31 million instances of domestic violence will take place if lockdowns continued for six months. In the first few weeks of its March lockdown, France saw an increase in reported domestic violence of 30%. Similarly, Spain experienced a 47% increase in calls to hotlines in the first two weeks of April this year. A recent Australian study found that one in ten women experienced emotional violence and one in 20 experienced physical violence during the shutdown. Most of these women had never experienced violence before.

While the United Nations has called on governments globally to make women’s safety a priority during Covid-19, most have not responded adequately to this call. For those that acted, they did the bare minimum by declaring shelters as essential but with reduced capacity or by providing additional funding to hotlines. In the UK, where up to 47 women are suspected to have been killed during the first lockdowns, the government’s response has been inadequate. Service providers have called for more support to housing, legal services and hotlines which have not been “prioritised”.

It’s taken the struggle with Covid-19 for some governments to recognise the violence in the lives of women. France and Spain have adapted to the moment by creatively responding to the unique circumstances of Covid-19. As people were only able to leave their homes for essentials, these governments created pop-up counselling services and asked survivors to seek assistance using code words at essential businesses such as pharmacies. While this is not enough to end violence against women, it’s an important step that should have been taken regardless of a war. These nations should continue these programs post–Covid-19 to help ensure women can seek assistance safely whenever they want.

It is time to rethink what peace and security looks like for women. How can nations be at peace when women continue to fight wars within their homes?

Putting real Australian money on the table to help Indonesia

Foreign exchange in Jakarta: the rupiah plummeted in value at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic (Bay Ismoyo/AFP via Getty Images)
Foreign exchange in Jakarta: the rupiah plummeted in value at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic (Bay Ismoyo/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 16 Nov 2020 12:00   1 Comments

Australia is lending A$1.5 billion to Indonesia to help it get through the economic crisis unleashed by Covid-19. This is welcome news and another sign of Australia stepping up to assist key partners in the region during an extraordinary global crisis.

The Australian loan will help the Indonesian government finance its budget deficit. As in all countries, effective response to the pandemic-induced recession requires a massive increase in the government budget deficit. Earlier in the year, Indonesia’s ability to finance this was extremely uncertain. Indonesia experienced violent capital outflows in March and April as investors worldwide reacted to the scale of the unfolding crisis. Foreign investors dumped Indonesia’s government bonds, and the rupiah plummeted. Because foreign investors normally fund a large part of the budget deficit, this threatened a severe problem. Thankfully by mid-year the outflows had subsided. But inflows never really returned in the way needed, especially given the substantially enlarged budget deficit that required financing.

With limited international help available, the Indonesian government turned to Bank Indonesia, the central bank, to directly fund a large part of the budget deficit. At the time, this was a big gambit. Unconventional monetary policy, in various forms, was already the norm in many advanced economies. But the idea that emerging economies could also engage in such practices without triggering an even more negative market reaction and further currency depreciation was not widely accepted.

In the end, the market reaction was muted. Perhaps because investors had already acclimated to the extraordinary policy actions of rich country central banks and accepted this as a relevant emergency response to the pandemic. Or perhaps it simply reflects the search for yield triggered by those enormous injections of liquidity that only assets in emerging markets can satisfy. Regardless, Indonesia had found a financial lifeline, even if this still carried some of its own risks.

A shipment of medical personal protective equipment from Australia to Indonesia in August (Australian Embassy Jakarta/Flickr)

So where does the Australian loan fit in?

I have advocated for some time that Australia should be willing to extend Indonesia a large standby loan facility, prospectively for as much as A$15 billion, in response to the pandemic crisis, which could be drawn upon if Indonesia had difficulty financing its budget deficit. This would have been a scaled-up version of previous A$1 billion standby facilities, ultimately never drawn upon, that Australia had provided Indonesia during past episodes of global market turmoil in 2008–09 and 2013.

The idea of a standby loan was to serve as an insurance policy. It would help to boost market confidence – making it easier for Indonesia to raise funds from the market – while providing an assured source of funding should this be needed. Such a facility would be particularly useful if there were another serious dislocation in global financial markets, especially as this could make relying so heavily on budget financing from Bank Indonesia much more difficult.

The need to sustain large budget deficits during the recovery phase ahead mean Indonesia’s financing challenges could persist for some time.

In the end, Australian assistance has taken the form of an outright loan for A$1.5 billion. This is not enough to be a game changer for Indonesia, which needs to raise as much as US$10 billion each month. But it will help. And there are several reasons discussions between Australia and Indonesia could have led to this particular outcome – a moderately larger loan than in the past but provided on an outright, rather than standby, basis.

On the Australian side, there would likely have been some political reluctance to providing a multi-billion dollar facility, given Australia is also battling its own domestic recession. In reality, the facility could be structured to come at little or no cost to the Australian budget. But the “sticker shock” may still have been too much for the government’s domestic political calculus. If this was the main limitation, then a standby loan of only A$1–1.5 billion would have been too small, given the scale of the current crisis. It would have been a minimal gesture on the part of Australia, simply keeping up with what had been done on previous occasions. Whereas an outright loan represents a bigger commitment by putting real Australian money on the table.

Indonesian preferences would also have been very important. President Joko Widodo may have preferred the tangible outcome of an immediate loan rather than the abstract insurance-like benefit of a larger standby loan facility. More generally, Indonesia’s policymakers now seem more focused on containing the government’s rising interest bill – which will reduce the space available for priority development spending such as infrastructure investment – rather than managing the risk of another severe bout of capital outflows. The interest rate on the bilateral loan has not yet been disclosed but will likely be quite cheap compared to Indonesia’s normal borrowing costs. It will also reduce some of the burden on Bank Indonesia in helping to fund the budget deficit.

Australia could arguably do more to assist. The need to sustain large budget deficits during the recovery phase ahead means Indonesia’s financing challenges could persist for some time while another bout of severe capital outflows remains a risk, even if this seems to have substantially receded for now.

Overall, however, the announced loan is a sensible and welcome step-up in Australian support.

In post-Covid recovery, hidden costs of going green

There is plenty of enthusiasm in developing countries about the potential of a “green recovery”, but concern about the unintended risks (Engineering for Change/Flickr)
There is plenty of enthusiasm in developing countries about the potential of a “green recovery”, but concern about the unintended risks (Engineering for Change/Flickr)
Published 12 Nov 2020 07:00   1 Comments

Amid concerted global efforts to mitigate the economic and social consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a growing interest in promoting a “green recovery”. Green recovery encourages a closer link between economic restoration and transition towards a more sustainable economic model which includes more ambitious climate policy and renewable energy. While the concept is appealing in theory, the international community needs to pay attention to its potential risks, particularly for developing countries.

The idea for green recovery has strong support from European countries. In June, Germany unveiled a fiscal stimuli package which included US$46 billion of special allocation to support investments in sustainable economic activities. The European Union adopted an environmentally friendly recovery plan, which was widely seen as a continuation of the European Green Deal, which has an aim to make Europe climate-neutral by 2050.  

International financial institutions have also pledged their support for green recovery. The International Monetary Fund, for instance, has announced the availability of $1 trillion in lending capacity, along with its commitment to promote the green recovery. Some countries and international NGOs began to advocate for the adoption of green recovery as a globally accepted path for post-coronavirus economic revival, among others through the 5th Session of the UN Environment Assembly, to be held in Kenya next year.

But how do developing countries, such as Indonesia, see the green recovery concept?

A report titled “Asia’s lamentable green response” by the ING Group criticised Southeast Asian countries for not sufficiently including green stimulus measures in economic recovery packages. Developing countries, many of which have to deal with severe environmental problems, indeed understand that the green recovery is relevant to contemporary development challenges. It will attract more investment in long-term sustainable projects and help reduce their dependence on extractive industries and commodity sectors.

There is plenty of enthusiasm about the potential of a green recovery, to both revive the economy and build resilience. Indonesia, for example, offers tax incentives for investment in renewable energy to help meet a renewable energy target of 23% by 2025, along with $47.6 billion fiscal stimuli.

Subsidies given to various sectors included in the green recovery project in developed countries, for example, will unfairly put developing countries at a disadvantage.

However, there are some concerns about the unintended risks of green recovery. Although green recovery is initially intended as a domestic economic strategy, the implementation of green recovery in one country could have a lasting impact on other countries through trade and investment relations. Subsidies given to various sectors included in the green recovery project in developed countries, for example, will unfairly put developing countries at a disadvantage. Developing countries are lacking financial and technological capabilities to match developed countries in assisting their green sector.

Moreover, specific subsidies and support to the green recovery, such as for research and development, could be inconsistent with World Trade Organisation rules. Together with new standards and regulations in a greening global economy, the extensive subsidies for the green economy will only make developed countries more economically competitive than developing countries. Imposing policies inconsistent with non-discrimination principles for the sake of environmental protection is possible under Article XX (b) and (g) of the WTO. However, the application of such environment-related trade measures will add a further burden to developing countries that are experiencing a drastic decline in export volumes.

Also, there has always been a great debate determining what amounts to an environmental good. Crop-based biofuels, such as from palm oil, for example, are considered environmental goods by developing countries, as they can be used as suitable alternatives to fossil fuels. In contrast, the EU has its own classification on which biofuels are sustainable or not. As a result, there is a potential for irreconcilable views on whether subsidising biofuels can be categorised as one of the green recovery projects.

A harvest of palm oil fruit to be trucked for processing in Indonesia (Stratman²/Flickr)

The international community should take coordinated action to mitigate the unexpected consequences of green recovery, as well as exchange views on how the green recovery concept can be beneficial for all countries, especially by discussing the following three matters.

First, international forums and international organisations should develop widely accepted regulation and guiding principles which will prevent green recovery from creating trade barriers, new environmental standards and unfair subsidies. None must merely use the green recovery as a tool to gain market access using environment pretence.

Second, international support needs to be made available to enhance developing countries’ capacity to harness economic opportunities within the global green economy. Indeed, in recent years some emerging economies have become increasingly prominent producers of environmental goods and renewable energy. In aggregate, however, the green market is still dominated by multinational corporations based in developed countries. Companies from developing countries, especially small businesses, face enormous challenges in meeting complex environmental standards of the green market.

In that context, programs such as “Aid for Trade” need to offer a specific project to help developing countries build trade capacity and resilience in producing and exporting green products. Through Aid for Trade and other similar activities, developing countries can be integrated more into global supply chains of green technologies, particularly by supplying intermediate inputs to high-tech green products produced by developed countries.

Third, the international community needs to develop a multilateral framework to help least-developed countries raise resources for green recovery, including through debt restructuring. These countries have tremendous difficulty in mobilising funds for sustainable economic activities, due to weak fiscal capacity and substantial external debts. One example of debt restructuring is debt-for-environment swaps, in which donors or international financial institutions agree to annul part or all of the outstanding debt in exchange for spending in environmental preservation. 

Most of all, the green recovery strategy should include perspectives of developing countries to anticipate its unintended consequences better. Accommodating concerns of developing countries through constructive dialogue is crucial to ensure broad support for the global implementation of a green recovery.

Main image courtesy of Flickr user Engineering for Change.

Singapore and Sri Lanka: Newfound opportunities amid Covid-19 pandemic

Happy harvest, Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka (Hamish John Appleby / IWMI Flickr Photos)
Happy harvest, Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka (Hamish John Appleby / IWMI Flickr Photos)
Published 27 Oct 2020 13:00   0 Comments

Photos of empty supermarket shelves became commonplace in the first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. The shutting down of borders and decreasing trade have affected many countries, especially those that heavily rely on imports and exports.

It is understandable that countries may restrict the flow of goods including food to safeguard their own interests during a crisis. For instance, Vietnam temporarily halted rice exportation to ensure that there was sufficient food consumption food domestically.

“Food security” is measured through the accessibility of food and the ability of an individual to have access to it. Singapore is a compelling example. Although it has been ranked as the most food-secure country in Asia Pacific under the Global Food Security Index (GFSI) 2019 Asia Pacific regional report, Singapore is susceptible to disruptions in the global supply chains since it imports more than 90% of its food. Singapore has witnessed how the uncertainty has triggered panic and resulted in hoarding of household supplies. It took contingency plans by issuing a joint ministerial statement with six Asia-Pacific countries in March 2020 to keep the global supply chains intact to enable the flow of goods during the pandemic.

New area of cooperation for Singapore and Sri Lanka

Covid-19 has opened new opportunities for Singapore and Sri Lanka to collaborate. The Singapore government has donated medical supplies including test kits, thermal scanners, surgical masks, surgical gloves, medical goggles and non-contact infrared thermometers to assist Colombo to keep the pandemic at bay. The two countries have also worked closely together to repatriate Sri Lankans stranded in Singapore. Singapore wants to project itself as a dependable and resourceful partner that taking the initiative to assist others in times of need.

This extends to food security. A webinar organised by officials in Colombo and Singapore in July to discuss agribusiness and digitalisation was an effort by the two countries to strengthen their relations in food management. Their long-standing trade relations have been exemplified by the high total volume of total US$883 million in 2019. Singapore was also Colombo’s fifth biggest investor in the same year.

Singapore in February: Rice, bread, noodles and vegetables, and of course toilet paper, were highly prized items in the early days of the pandemic (cattan2011/Flickr)

Many Singapore organisations have sought opportunities in Colombo’s growth sectors, including food and beverage, tourism, infrastructure and consumer goods. There are approximately 100 Singaporean companies operating in Colombo. Prima group was the first Singapore company to set up operations in Sri Lanka as early as 1977 and has become a household name over the years. It has also made Trincomalee its South Asia hub. In 2018, several local businesses signed MoUs to establish their presence in Colombo. For instance, Art Holdings signed an agreement with Beijing Genome Institute to set up a crab farm in Sri Lanka.

Despite the challenges, Covid-19 has propelled countries to reimagine existing opportunities and leverage new ones. Colombo, a key exporter of rubber, tea and fresh/processed food, has been affected by the disruptions in the global supply chains. The new area of cooperation between Singapore and Colombo is likely to benefit both countries. As Singapore tries to diversify its food imports to remain as food secure as possible, Colombo is seeking to capture new markets, along with regaining the lost ones.

A stepping stone for Sri Lanka’s economy

Following the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government’s landslide victory in this year’s parliamentary elections, Colombo is likely to adopt an Asia-centric foreign policy. The government’s reorientation also reflects a change in the balance of powers that is moving eastwards. Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage has said that Colombo should focus on its neighbourhood and move away from Western-centric diplomacy.

Asian countries may be better positioned to assist Colombo to reduce its foreign debt and boost economic spending. The current government is of the view that forming strategic partnerships with Asian countries could pose fewer challenges than with its Western counterparts, who are more inclined to raise issues of human rights.

Colombo’s pivot to Asia and interest in increasing food exports could help overcome the disruptions in current food supplies.

Historically Sri Lanka has focused heavily garment exports to the West. However, its economy that is highly dependent on tourism, exports of garments and foreign worker remittances, has contracted further since the Covid-19 pandemic. Although senior analysts Hemant Shivakumar has said that the government’s pivot towards its neighbourhood would not happen by jeopardising its relations with Western countries, it cannot wholly rely on the US and European Union as the main export destinations for its garments industry.  

Although the agricultural sector has contributed relatively less to the GDP, it has employed approximately a third of the labour force, especially among the rural population. The new area of collaboration between Singapore and Sri Lanka in food security could be a stepping stone for Colombo to develop its local economy and increase its food exports to other Asian markets that are trying to remain as food secure as possible.

China is another key market, given that it has seen major food shortages in the past. Although Beijing has made substantial improvements to increase its agricultural capacity, it still faces threats to food security. Colombo’s pivot to Asia and interest in increasing food exports could help overcome the disruptions in current food supplies.

Diplomacy after Covid: No looking back

Modern diplomacy (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)
Modern diplomacy (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)
Published 21 Oct 2020 06:00   0 Comments

The 75th United Nations General Assembly held last month was unique. The media spectacle of leaders’ speeches gave way to resident diplomat introductions, pre-recorded video presentations, and videoconferences. For some, the unspectacular and even boring nature of the General Assembly’s high-level week suggested that videoconference diplomacy will come to an end with Covid-19. But there are strong arguments to suggest the world’s worst Zoom meeting may not be the last of its kind.

Innovation in diplomacy has three criteria: recognised need, technological and/or social transformation and human resources to exploit it, and financial support. The evolution of diplomacy has been marked by these three criteria combining to transform and update diplomatic practice.

The 20th century saw summit diplomacy, shuttle diplomacy and hotline diplomacy become mainstream diplomatic processes. Each change resulted from a recognised need to streamline and increase the speed of diplomacy in face of intensifying of what military jargon dubs as the observe–orient–decide–act cycles in modern warfare. Essentially, technological innovation in ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons superseded the time needed for protracted diplomatic communication.

Diplomacy had to change. Changes in transportation and communications technology and the financial support to provide for it, allowed diplomacy to catch up – albeit at a cost. The representative role of the resident ambassador changed to less of an envoy who acts on behalf of the executive (entering into legal agreements and/or committing the state to action) to one who predominantly stands in for the executive (demonstrating the power, prestige and influence of the sending state). The ambassador’s foreign decision-making role decreased, and the public diplomacy/political role increased. Indeed, stemming from these now dated innovations, the ambassador’s role continues to transform.

The United Nations General Assembly in an age of social distancing (Manuel Elías/UN Photo)

We are again in a period of recognised need. Covid-19 has disrupted and distorted diplomacy. In the early stages, it disrupted practices (and the lives of diplomats) and threatened to distort the very fabric of resident representation. The sense of crisis in the Covid-19 pandemic precipitated a sense of need in foreign ministries to rapidly adapt to long-standing, yet not exploited communication technologies, such as videoconferencing. But “Zoomplomacy” was never going to be enough. States are now committing financial resources to build infrastructure to sustain videoconference diplomacy with task-specific adaptability, national control and security.

Preparations are also being made for the next step. Several countries recognise that the digital diplomacy revolution is more than communication technologies, and are exploring how 3-D gaming, deep learning, machine thinking, artificial intelligence and robotics will impact diplomacy.

To imagine that the changes underway will disappear with Covid-19 is to imagine that academic travel budgets will return, online shopping will be discarded, and work from home will end.

Concept developers are already working on replacing the much-criticised Zoom diplomacy conference with what the tech world knows as open-world/sandbox gaming, which would allow diplomats to attend conferences and maintain real life/virtual characteristics of trust and reputation, hold secure, private conversations, undertake corridor diplomacy, and schedule media interviews on the conference sidelines. Such gaming technologies promise to integrate and improve on earlier conceptualisations of diplomacy in the digital environment, such as “Diplomacy Island” on Second Life.  As computer processing power and graphics capacities increase, and open-world gaming becomes more accessible, more and more diplomatic applications will emerge.

The criticisms of videoconference diplomacy and whatever follows it are many – but no more than Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, who on receiving the first-ever telegraph message on his desk in the 1840s, is reported to have declared it the end of diplomacy. The criticism of the telegraph’s instant communication and the threatened end to the calm, thoughtful and discreet deliberation that marked 19th-century diplomacy, was soon forgotten as new skills, new practices and new diplomats came to fill the gaps in an ever-evolving profession.

So will diplomacy change again – multilateral diplomacy in particular. Fly-in/fly-out missions such as the UN General Assembly will become less common.

There are several reasons to support this claim. First, multilateral diplomacy has come under increasing criticism regarding waste, imbalance, inefficiency and corruption, leading to an increased unwillingness to apportion budgets to multilateral diplomacy. Second, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, foreign ministry budgets over the next five years will be particularly tight. Finally, the irony of organisations dedicated to addressing the causes of climate change and doing little to change their own inefficient, airplane-contrail-exacerbating practices is not lost on those criticising multilateral diplomacy.

Videoconference diplomacy will not go away. It will at first rest side-by-side with fly-in/fly-out missions. With time, it will replace them. To imagine that the changes underway will disappear with Covid-19 is to imagine that academic travel budgets will return, online shopping will be discarded, and work from home will end. There are already clear signs that we are already in the new normal.

The criteria for innovation in diplomacy is here. Covid-19 has provided a recognised need. The technological and/or social transformation and human resources to exploit it are now in place, and the financial support is coming. A less-than-spectacular UN General Assembly and an overwhelmingly boring week of leaders’ speeches will not stop diplomacy’s evolution.

Protecting political leaders from Covid-19

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump (White House/Flickr)
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump (White House/Flickr)
Published 3 Oct 2020 15:30   0 Comments

In light of news Donald Trump has his wife Melania have tested positive for Covid-19, we have re-issued this article first published in The Interpreter on 31 March outlining the challenges of protecting leaders from infection.

Since the onset of Covid-19, we have entered a twilight world few would have expected to witness outside of popular dystopian fantasies. While we are now receiving a steady stream of public updates on the virus and what we should be doing, we have seen a worrying trend of increasing numbers of leaders and significant others around the world succumbing to infection by the virus.

What are our leaders doing to protect themselves to enable them to lead us to the other side of this crisis? Is there a different standard of elite leadership security between that of totalitarian regimes and that of democracies?

Until recently, many would have considered the security practices of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un’s close personal protection team, in which they ensure the isolation of their Supreme Leader, as being slightly paranoid and overdone. But the Kims have long embraced a variety of protective measures, from the medieval to the modern, to safeguard their leadership dynasty – everything from the use of food testers to simply fleeing to more isolated areas of the country. Other tyrants are also ensuring they are not exposed to the virus, with Vladimir Putin reportedly being vigilantly subjected to 24-hour protection and putting on a yellow hazmat suit to visit patients in an infectious diseases hospital. 

How have persons of such eminence and importance fallen ill to infection so relatively early in the crisis? Is it a personal failing born of braggadocio, or a failing of those responsible for protecting them?

Perhaps leaders in the democratic world should be a little more attentive to their personal health and safety to enable them to attend to their responsibilities. Reports of US President Donald Trump’s cavalier and blasé attitude and misinformed statements are a concern for not only his security but also those who look to him for leadership and a pathway out of this crisis. It seems some of the more authoritarian approaches to this crisis and their expertise, as exhibited in China, are being sought after, rather than looking to the US for leadership.

The list of the free world’s political class, including royalty and other elites, succumbing to infection is steadily rising with the addition of Britain’s Prince Charles, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock. Other European elites include European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier; Begoña Gomez, the wife of the Spanish prime minister; and Prince Albert of Monaco. Spain’s Princess Maria Teresa is the first royal to have died of the coronavirus, and there are reports of a servant of the British Monarch being infected.



Many of these political elites are far from the heady days of youth. Senior members of the British royal family seem particularly susceptible, and the failure to protect Prince Charles has already tepidly entered debate in the media. The irrepressible Boris Johnson fell ill to the virus despite his almost Churchillian words of resistance. Ditto from our own Peter Dutton, with his specially trained Australian Federal Police (AFP) close protection officers being tested for the virus.

Regionally, the chief of the Philippine Armed Forces has tested positive for the virus, while other senior officials from around the world, such as the Iranian Vice President and two Ministers, have been stricken.

How have persons of such eminence and importance fallen ill to infection so relatively early in the crisis? Is it a personal failing born of braggadocio, or a failing of those responsible for protecting them? This pandemic is new, but the idea of our leaders succumbing to contagion, chemicals, or poison is certainly not. In the aftermath of 9/11, we found governments and leaders threatened via diverse means, including anthrax, and the responses to protect against these methods involved biological security measures.

Of course, if we go back to the 1918 flu pandemic, to which the current crisis is being compared, we also had a situation in which the public and leaders alike had to respond to an invisible enemy. Hundreds of years ago, records suggest a popular biological warfare method was to catapult the body of a deceased person infected with plague into the midst of the enemy’s town square, although the actual efficacy of this method is contested.



Our modern cities don’t see the invisible enemy introduced into our midst as vividly as our medieval forebears did, and apparently some of our leaders (e.g., Trump) have been as blinkered as the revellers in Florida or on Sydney’s Bondi Beach. The until recently, confusion about the virus was evident at the highest levels, with journalists David Speers and Peter van Onselen drawing out the inconsistencies two weeks ago the ABC Insiders program. Van Onselen tweeted that he had seen the Chief Medical Officer shaking hands just prior to being telecast.

In this time of crisis, we need leadership, and that means we need leaders who will be around to get us to the other side of this catastrophe as the predatory virus plucks off more politicians and reduces the herd of political elites. Fortunately, over the last week in Australia we have seen some robust leadership seeking to instil an iron rod in our collective security spines and move beyond impotent statements of intent and clumsy incongruencies in statements from our state and federal political elite.

As the pandemic continues to claim new victims, there will be more political figures added to this list. Perhaps it might benefit all of us during our time in isolation to grapple with the miscellany of the politics of the pandemic. In this regard, a timely book published on the cusp of the pandemic by an academic at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who previously modelled Ebola and Zika outbreaks might be worthwhile reading for a growing list of leaders who are self-isolating and quarantining. After all, we do not wish to choose the totalitarian measures inducted in Wuhan simply because our leaders were a little slow off the blocks to protect themselves and our communities.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin visits coronavirus patients in a hospital outside Moscow (

Of democracy and despots: Protecting political leaders from Covid-19
2020-03-31 12:00:00 +1100

In Bangladesh, Covid adds to a list of maladies

Dhaka, Bangladesh during relief distribution in May (UN Women Asia and the Pacific/Flickr)
Dhaka, Bangladesh during relief distribution in May (UN Women Asia and the Pacific/Flickr)
Published 1 Oct 2020 07:00   1 Comments

The Covid-19 situation has had a devastating effect on the local economy, the brunt being borne by the country’s export-oriented garments industry. It has propelled owners of various businesses – and that includes the media sector – into showing employees the door, and with rising unemployment follows idleness, and broader consequences unimagined.

Official statistics place the number of those affected by the coronavirus, so far, in Bangladesh almost 360,000. More than 5100 people have died from Covid-19, though there are reasons to believe the figures could be much higher. A particular problem in tackling Covid-19 has been the propensity on the part of large sections of the population to ignore instructions, such as wearing masks and using hand sanitisers. The capital Dhaka remains notorious in that little consideration is being given to the regular instructions handed out by the authorities on warding off Covid-19. Crowds are still seen gathering in markets and roadside tea stalls, with little thought to the ramifications of such unhindered movement.

The malady has not spared a number of prominent Bangladeshis. Among the casualties have been academics, writers, journalists, artists, civil servants, policemen and military personnel. On Sunday, the country’s attorney general died of the disease, which is one more hint of the way in which Covid-19 has been ravaging the country. Yet the disease has also intersected with climate change–induced challenges, which also pose a major threat to the densely populated nation. Indeed, this was a point Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made in a recent article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper and also in her virtual address before the 75th session of the UN General Assembly.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (on screens) addresses the general debate of the UN General Assembly on 26 September (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

That said, there have been the rather unsavoury truths making the rounds in Bangladesh’s Covid-19 narrative. In recent weeks, corruption related to Covid-19–negative certificates being issued by some hospitals, prominent among which is Regent Hospital, has been exposed to obvious public consternation. The hospital, whose owner is now in prison and who before the scandal broke appeared to be connected to influential people across the spectrum, was caught giving out false certificates to people seeking tests for the disease, without actually doing the tests. The scandal led to bigger questions, specifically on the role of the nation’s health directorate in granting permission to such hospitals, no questions asked and no inquiries undertaken, to handle coronavirus circumstances.

As if Covid-19 weren’t enough, the country has been under intense pressure in other areas. A growing closeness to China has led to a diplomatic strain, displeasing India. Dhaka and Delhi have traditionally had close ties, but recent strains brought on by India’s failure to conclude a water-sharing treaty over the Teesta river and the Indian government’s move for a national register of citizens in its north-eastern region have become pretty pronounced. Fears have persisted in Bangladesh that the citizens’ register introduced by New Delhi could be a move towards pushing into the country people the Indians believe are Bangladeshis who over the years have settled illegally in such Indian states as Assam.

Many Bangladeshis’ views of Beijing’s assistance to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and a number of African nations under the Belt and Road Initiative are none too favourable.

With China, Bangladesh’s relations have been warming in recent years. Development projects have been undertaken with Chinese assistance, factors which predictably have India worried. Bangladesh is also a recipient of Chinese military equipment, which is another cause for worry in New Delhi. Besides, the Chinese have been keen to draw Bangladesh into its Belt and Road Initiative, which again is disturbing, for many Bangladeshis’ views of Beijing’s assistance to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and a number of African nations under the BRI are none too favourable.

For Bangladesh, the urgent requirement is keeping a balance in its diplomacy, a good reason being its belief that China, India and even Russia could be instrumental in a resolution of the Rohingya crisis with Myanmar. With as many as 1.1 million Rohingyas in refugee camps in Bangladesh’s south-eastern Cox’s Bazar region and with little sign of a solution to the problem, Bangladesh is in a straitjacket.

Add to those worries the demand by Saudi Arabia that the 54,000 Rohingyas currently in the kingdom be provided with Bangladesh passports. These Rohingyas have in the past two decades made their way to Saudi Arabia through various means and clearly are not part of the Bangladeshi population. But this demand by the Saudis is concerning for Dhaka, which has 2,200,000 of its workers in the kingdom and whose remittances make an important contribution to Bangladesh’s foreign exchange basket. If now the Saudis tie the continued stay of the workers in the kingdom to the question of a grant of passports to the 54,000 Rohingyas, Bangladesh will feel a new pressure that it will find hard to handle.

How much did the spies really know about the virus?

Did the spooks clearly foreshadow the danger as the virus emerged? (Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images)
Did the spooks clearly foreshadow the danger as the virus emerged? (Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 23 Sep 2020 06:00   1 Comments

Something doesn’t quite line up in Bob Woodward’s latest book – and you have to look at what we know about intelligence assessments in Australia to understand why.

Woodward tells us in Rage, his second look into the current White House, of top-secret warnings delivered to US President Donald Trump in the earliest days of coronavirus. “This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” Trump’s national security adviser is reported to have said in a briefing on 28 January this year. And Woodward is not the first to point to supposedly ominous early intelligence assessments about the danger posed by the virus – indeed, it’s become something of an established talking point over the course of the pandemic that Trump botched the response to what had been explicit warnings in January and February.

But it’s the characterisation of foresight, to have known back then that Covid-19 posed “the biggest national security threat”, that doesn’t appear to fit with experience in Australia – which, after all, is a key US partner in the Five Eyes alliance for sharing intelligence reports and assessments. The implication of such language is that the spooks clearly foreshadowed the danger as the virus emerged. Yet without being able to read these reports, which remain classified, this relies on the memory of those involved. And the evidence we do have suggests that those who are recalling the early warnings might instead be employing the wisdom of hindsight.

It would be extraordinary that a key spy chief in Australia would have not even mentioned Covid-19 if at the very same time the US intelligence warning system was truly “blinking red”.

Bear with me. This anomaly will take some explaining. Because you have to rewind your brain all the way back to February to see the connection … or rather, to see what’s missing.

It was in Canberra in late February, almost a month after Trump was given his White House warning, that Mike Burgess, head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, stood at a podium in Canberra to deliver what was portentously billed as an inaugural “annual threat assessment”.

But remarkable as it might seem now, on 24 February the ASIO chief uttered not a word about Covid-19, pandemics, the risk of disease, the prospect of thousands dead and economic ruin. To be sure, Burgess spoke of “unprecedented” dangers to national security, but the type of foreign interference of most concern in his speech was not a deadly microbe sweeping the globe.

Of course, we know how rapidly events unfolded. Barely three weeks later, on 13 March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison banned non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people, required 14-day quarantine for any person travelling from overseas, and urged Australians not to go abroad. That lockdown was only the beginning.

Katoomba, New South Wales, 7 April 2020 (Blue Mountains Library/Flickr)

Now, it should not be expected that ASIO would have been at the forefront of warning about a pandemic. The legislation governing ASIO provides an explicit definition of “security”, to mean protection from espionage, sabotage, politically motivated violence, promotion of communal violence, attacks on Australia’s defence system, and acts of foreign interference. In the Australian system, the Office of National Intelligence has a broader set of responsibilities which takes in all manner of potential dangers to the country and its interests.

Yet it would be impossible to imagine Burgess delivering a similar speech today on such a broad remit without at least a passing reference to coronavirus. In June, as a guest on a podcast, Burgess said it would “be kind of short-sighted to say there is no impact of Covid on the threat environment”.

And equally, returning to that February speech, it would be extraordinary that a key spy chief in Australia would have delivered a national threat assessment and not even mentioned Covid-19 if at the very same time the US intelligence warning system was truly “blinking red” about the transformational threat from the virus, as some would have it.

If that were the case, it would point to major failings in the intelligence system. Either the Americans didn’t care enough to pass along the warnings. Or there was a problem sharing intelligence between the Australian agencies.

But there could also be simpler explanation, too. That back then, while there had been previous experience with SARS in the early 2000s showing how quickly a coronavirus could spread, the scale of the potential disruption from Covid-19 wasn’t fully appreciated.

This is not to question Woodward’s reporting. There were undoubtedly intelligence assessments about the emergence of this new virus. Those fateful words, “biggest national security threat”, may well have been uttered. But in a White House renowned for bluster and excess, how much does that resonate? How detailed was the warning? And how persistent? Was it report after report after report? These more important questions remain unanswered, and it’s too easy to fall into breezy assumptions about the all-seeing, all-knowing spies.

Transnational threats, including pandemics, would be expected to feature in any sweeping national assessment produced in Australia, in much the same fashion as the equivalent product in the US, where there is a measure of transparency, with the release of unclassified versions. This was the judgement in the US intelligence community’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment” of January 2019, a year before Covid-19 took hold:

We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or large-scale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.

That warning, though stark, appeared on page 21. And it carries the kind of tick-the-box, cover-yourself quality of the mention of any number of potential threats.

None of this is to suggest some kind of massive intelligence failure occurred around Covid-19. If anything, the urge to blame someone – anyone – for the emergence of this disease stems from the illusion of control. Too often there is an expectation that invoking national security is an answer. Looking back on those first weeks seemed more a case of a world grappling with surprise, of systems exposed, assumptions of invulnerability upended.

Instead, judge Trump on his actions once the scale of the virus became obvious. His record is bad enough.

Where the US went wrong in the pandemic​​​​​​​

The country rated most prepared for a pandemic has nearly a quarter of all Covid-19 cases and more than 20% of the deaths (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
The country rated most prepared for a pandemic has nearly a quarter of all Covid-19 cases and more than 20% of the deaths (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 16 Sep 2020 15:00   0 Comments

The facts are undeniable. The United States has completely botched its response to the Covid-19 outbreak. As of 15 September, America has recorded more than 6.6 million cases of the disease and nearly 200,000 deaths. That means that a country with less than 5% of the world’s population – and that the Global Health Security Index rated as the most prepared to deal with a disease pandemic – is home to nearly a quarter of all Covid-19 cases and more than 20% of the deaths.

It’s easy to blame President Donald Trump for these failures. He repeatedly told the public that the virus was “going to disappear” (even though Trump told Bob Woodward that he was deliberately playing the threat down). He has repeatedly blamed China for the outbreak and suggested it was a biological weapon that escaped from a lab near Wuhan. He promoted untested drugs such as hydroxychloroquine as cures for the disease when in actuality it provides no benefit and is often dangerous. He has repeatedly sidelined scientific experts and interfered with their assessments.

Instead of recognising how global health is in America’s own self-interest, Trump has thwarted efforts at creating a coherent, unified strategy on Covid-19 – something that we know from experience is absolutely vital to effectively addressing the pandemic.

And yet … when we look at the United States, we can’t lay all of the blame at the feet of Donald Trump and his administration.

This does not mean that we should defend Donald Trump, but rather recognise how public health policy is carried out in the United States – and why it poses such challenges for building a coherent strategy.

Trump has thwarted efforts at creating a coherent, unified strategy on Covid-19 (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

The biggest public health challenge in the United States is that these policies are largely implemented at the state and local level. The federal government has financial resources and can help set the tone, but it is ultimately up to these subnational governments to decide what makes sense for them.

This is precisely where many of the problems with America’s Covid-19 response emerge – and that is because of how public health has become a partisan issue. Public health is inherently political, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be partisan.

Government policymakers who have aligned themselves with Trump have actively prevented their states from introducing the sorts of policies that have proven effective in stopping the spread of Covid-19.

To illustrate this point, let’s look to the American Midwest. This is the part of the country where I was born and raised (in the state of Iowa) and where I now live (in the state of Minnesota). It has a few large cities, but it’s more rural than the coasts. When outsiders think of the Midwest (and they often don’t, hence its reputation as “flyover country”), the traditional image is one of a region where the cost of living is low, people are nice and life is less stressful.

Despite the seeming homogeneity, the responses by Midwestern state governments to Covid-19 have varied widely – and much of that variation goes back to the interplay between public health and partisanship. If you look at the number of cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days in the United States, Midwestern states – such as North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa – account for 6 of the 10 highest case loads. This does not mean that all Midwestern states are at the top of the list, though. Illinois ranks 20th, Minnesota ranks 31st and Michigan ranks 36th.

What explains these variations? In the states with high rates of Covid-19 infection, governments have largely avoided introducing mask mandates, have allowed restaurants and other businesses to reopen earlier and have been less inclined to impose restrictions on public gatherings.

South Dakota allowed the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally to occur in mid-August, bringing nearly half a million bikers to western South Dakota – and then causing Covid-19 cases in at least a dozen other states as people took the virus home with them. Republican governors in North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa have resisted mask mandates, instead “tapping into a spirit of independence” that they feel would be harmed by requiring masks in public.

Deadwood, South Dakota during the 80th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally on 8 August (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)


The governor of Iowa refused to issue at stay-at-home order – something most states did – and forced schools to hold in-person classes. In Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Supreme Court have thwarted Democratic Governor Tony Evers’s efforts to introduce statewide policies, instead arguing that any decisions should be left to local governments.

In each of these cases, government policymakers who have aligned themselves with Trump have actively prevented their states from introducing the sorts of policies that have proved effective in stopping the spread of Covid-19. They have framed their argument in terms of personal freedom, liberty and resisting government overreach – and because so much of public health policy in the United States is devolved to the subnational level, it leads to a confusing patchwork quilt of policies and undermines collective efforts to stop the pandemic’s spread.

This does not mean that Republicans are inherently anti–public health. Some of the states with the most effective responses to Covid-19, such as Vermont, Massachusetts and Maryland, have Republican governors.

Instead, what the poor policy response by the United States to Covid-19 demonstrates is how the interplay between poor leadership at the federal level and partisanship at the state level undermines an effective and coordinated effort. The problem is the confusing, multilayered nature of the American political system, and it unfortunately has consequences for the entire world.

Pandemic democracy

Election day in the Basque Country region of Spain in July (Robert Bonet/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Election day in the Basque Country region of Spain in July (Robert Bonet/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 7 Sep 2020 13:30   0 Comments

How will Covid-19 affect electoral democracy in Australia and around the world?

The pandemic has starkly revealed two fundamental aspects of successful democracy: the extent of a given society’s trust between its citizens and their government, and the capacity of those same governments to deliver and enforce appropriate public health responses. 

Countries whose governments are both trusted and capable have seen them handle the virus relatively well, while those with neither trust nor capacity have seen it spread out of control. On this metric, Australia more resembles Asian democracies such as Taiwan and South Korea in our relatively high levels of social compliance than the more individualistic Anglophone societies with which we tend to feel comity.

As the examples of the United Kingdom and the United States have shown, democracy itself is no guarantee of an effective response to the virus.

However, the pandemic also presents a major challenge to one element of modern democracy – the holding of mass elections. 

Election day – a forum for a mass public gathering of adult citizens across the country, and their congregation within discrete and sometimes crowded polling stations – has become more dangerous in the Covid-19 era. Even when social distancing can be enforced, this kind of activity is now inherently problematic on public health grounds.

Sanitising a voting station in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, United States (Cassandra Mullins/The National Guard/Flickr)

Delay or cancellation of elections is one response to Covid-19, and a growing concern, given the worldwide democratic recession. Local elections in Hong Kong, for example, have recently been delayed for a year using the pretext of coronavirus, but really as a response by Beijing to the growing support for pro-democracy parties.

Even in established democracies, many elections are being postponed. New Zealand’s general elections, originally scheduled for this month, have been delayed till October as a result of the Auckland outbreak. In the United Kingdom, local elections – including the London mayoral vote – have been pushed out by a full year, on advice from medical experts.

For jurisdictions within Australia such as Queensland, whose state election is constitutionally fixed for 31 October, expanded use of pre-poll voting and social distancing at polling places is the response – at least for the time being.

Another option is to hold elections over the internet. Estonia already does this, but due to well-founded security concerns, very few countries have yet taken the step to open up their elections to all voters on-line. 

Paper ballots and a paper trail are still seen as essential to election security and providing a post-election audit capacity to safeguard the integrity of results. In 2017, Finland abandoned plans to move to online voting, concluding that the costs outweighed the benefits.

Even if the virus prompts a rethink, the kinds of investments needed to provide an acceptable level of ballot security and to withstand cyber intrusion are likely to be some time in future.

Postal votes (Ian Britton/Flickr)

A third and most likely option is thus a renewed focus on voting by mail. In Australia, we have already embraced this and other forms of “convenience” voting in large numbers. At the 2019 federal election, 40% of Australians cast their ballot prior to election day, while the recent Northern Territory poll saw, for the first time, more voters casting their ballot in advance than on election day itself.

Australia and other established democracies are increasingly shifting from having a polling day to having a polling period, a change which may turn out to be irreversible.

But there is a potential downside to this shift: the loss of civic engagement and broader opportunities for democratic deliberation.

In Western Australia, postal voting was introduced for most local government elections in 2011, in order to make voting easier, particularly in rural areas. This shift increased turnout but has been criticised for making democratic engagement more superficial, particularly in passionate rural communities.

The looming congressional and presidential elections in the United States this November ­will be a stress test of postal voting’s compatibility with democracy in a polarised and low-trust political environment.

Given that the point of elections is to choose, the lack of widespread exposure to the election campaign and the debates on policies makes a swing towards voting by mail problematic. If voting by mail diminishes the salience of elections and makes it less likely that informed deliberation over policy alternatives takes place, it has the potential to undermine democracy itself. 

The looming congressional and presidential elections in the United States this November ­– which will effectively be a referendum on the Trump presidency and his handling of the pandemic – will be a stress test of postal voting’s compatibility with democracy in a polarised and low-trust political environment.

With decreasing confidence in the ability of the US Postal Service to handle a surge in requests for early ballots now as well as postal votes themselves, it would be prudent to expect at the very least a degree of uncertainty and potential delays in results, akin to the 2000 Bush-Gore election. 

But there is also the potential – lesser but not trivial – for more significant problems than just delayed results. 

Voting by mail has already become an issue of major partisan division, with Democrats seeking greater voting by mail and Republicans opposing it, as part of their ongoing efforts to restrict the franchise. If this continues to November, we may be facing a high-level contest not just to see who wins the election but over the rules of the game itself.

Australia needs the workers, the Pacific needs the jobs

G’day mate (David Gray/Getty Images)
G’day mate (David Gray/Getty Images)
Published 27 Aug 2020 07:00   1 Comments

Finding a consistent stream of agricultural labour in Australia has long proved a challenge. With Australians often unwilling to accept this type of work in the numbers required to get food to market, the government has sought to use visa schemes to remedy the problem, welcoming foreign labour. Yet in doing so, they have pivoted the industry’s labour market towards one specific visa category, and created an unfair competition between different visa holders. This situation now has serious implications for Australia’s foreign policy.

First, a little history. In 2005, the government thought it had struck upon an innovative solution to its agricultural labour shortage problem. Thousands of young and physically capable people entered Australia each year through its Working Holiday Maker scheme (known as the “backpacker visa”). This visa is open to people aged between 18 and 30 from European, North American and East Asian countries, allowing them to work in Australia for a year (citizens of Canada, France and Ireland have an age limit of 35). The scheme proved incredibly popular, and many people used it as an opportunity to advance their careers or find a pathway towards permanent settlement in Australia.

Capitalising on this sentiment, the Australian government decided to offer the chance to gain a second year-long visa if people first spend three months working in the agricultural industry in a rural setting. Subsequently a third year-long visa was made available after a further six months of agricultural labour.

Yet the upshot was to completely skew the agricultural labour market towards a group who weren’t actually committed to the regions they were working in – people who would simply disappear after meeting their minimum requirements. At the same time, it created a captured market for employers. This led to numerous instances of worker exploitation in both wages and conditions.

Fast forward to the present and the Covid-19 pandemic, and the restrictions on movement to Australia have meant the reliance on this visa group has also created a serious labour shortage in the agricultural industry.

In competition with these backpackers is one of the central pillars of Australia’s “Pacific Step-up”, the Seasonal Workers Program (although the scheme itself pre-dates the “Step-up” branding). The seasonal workers program aims to create agricultural job for citizens of Australia’s Pacific Island neighbours, as well as those of Timor-Leste.

Tomatoes on the vine, Queensland, Australia (Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Providing labour market access to developed economies for the citizens of developing nations has long been understood as the most effective – and least paternalistic – tool to enhance their livelihoods. Pacific Island governments have sought such access for some time. In contrast to backpackers, these seasonal workers return each harvesting season, understand the requirements of the work, and because they are supporting families in their home countries ­– rather than just ticking a box ­­– are regard as more committed and productive

These barriers to the seasonal workers program actually serve as a sheet anchor holding back one of the primary aims of Australia’s foreign policy: to foster the stability and prosperity of its Pacific neighbours.

According to the World Bank, following several months within the seasonal workers program, Pacific Islanders typically send back around $8,000 (US$5,700) to their families in their respective countries. This can be as much as three years worth of wages that they would earn at home. Tongans are the largest group who utilise the seasonal workers program, in per capita terms, and it has been estimated that their net earnings exceed the combination of Australia aid to Tonga and Tonga’s exports to Australia – an indication of why the scheme is so valued through the Pacific.

Yet the seasonal workers program has significant barriers to entry for agricultural businesses. Employers must be pre-approved by the government, and all positions they have must face labour market testing. Employers also must also provide accommodation, and be responsible for worker welfare outside of work hours. This helps mitigate against the chance of exploitation (although not completely), but it also leads some employers to baulk at using the program for their labour needs, seeing the framework around the scheme as too burdensome, especially when hiring backpackers involves none of these provisions.

These barriers to the seasonal workers program actually serve as a sheet anchor holding back one of the primary aims of Australia’s foreign policy: to foster the stability and prosperity of its Pacific neighbours. With the Covid-19 pandemic decimating the region’s tourism industry, the seasonal workers program will be even more vital for Pacific Islanders once borders gradually reopen.

Yet Australia should be looking for more ways to further encourage the agricultural industry to use the program to meet their labour needs. The most obvious solution would be to reconfigure the backpackers visa to reduce its agricultural components. However, the visa should not be completely abolished, as some unions are advocating in a misguided belief that Australians would rush to take these jobs instead. They won’t. The working holiday scheme remains an important instrument to attract young and educated people to Australia.

Reducing the unbalanced competition this visa creates in the agricultural labour market should be a priority for the government. There is currently a strong alignment of needs between Australia and the Pacific in this area. Allowing the seasonal workers program to flourish is in Canberra’s interests just as much as those of Pacific Islanders.

Europe’s big bonds and the prospect of a boon for Australia

(Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
(Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
Published 24 Aug 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Recently concluded negotiations for a new seven-year budget of the European Union, which excluded Britain for the first time in five decades, lasted more than two years and took five arduous days last month to wrap up in Brussels.

But the result fundamentally changes and extends the role of the European Commission in international financial markets. This will have significant consequences for Australia – both as a free trade deal is finalised, and for strategic interests in a post-pandemic world.

The EU’s executive arm has now been authorised to issue bonds (3–30 year maturities) on behalf of the 27 member states, to the value of €750 billion (A$1.2 trillion) for what is to be known as the Recovery and Resilience Fund. This forms part of the EU’s broader response to the economic fallout from Covid-19, the so-called New Generation EU, which aims to “repair and prepare” the EU economies for the political and strategic environment in the post-virus era.

The Recovery and Resilience Fund will utilise AAA-rated bond sales to finance grants and loans to EU member countries. This will not only stabilise sovereign debt issues in France, Italy and Spain, but also deliver markets low-risk medium and long-term investment-grade securities.

On top of other programs to support economies through the crisis, as well as a decision to maintain the seven-year EU budget (2021–27) at €1.1 trillion (A$1.8 trillion), the measures will also reinforce the euro’s role as the world’s second-most important reserve currency. However, in order to repay the debt, the EU will need to introduce new fiscal and taxation measures, invoking the possibility (once again) of a controversial digital tax.

The potential for the EU-Australia FTA

EU efforts to implement a structured post-pandemic recovery strategy are important to Australia in the context of the forthcoming EU-Australia free trade agreement. In 2018–19, Australia exported more than $33 billion in goods and services to the EU, and Europe is Australia’s biggest two-way services trade partner. Even without the UK, the EU will still be the second-largest economic bloc in the world (behind USMCA, as the renegotiated NAFTA is known), comprising more than 440 million consumers.

As the EU-Australia FTA is finalised, the rapid recovery of European consumer, business and financial markets will be critical to realising its full potential.

If the UK’s post-Brexit economic performance remains consistently below average, this is likely to impact Britain’s outward investment position in Australia considerably.

This becomes clear when looking at investment flows. In 2019, the EU’s and UK’s outward investment stocks in Australia were roughly equal and ranked second only to the US – with such foreign capital flows having both direct and indirect effects upon levels of domestic investment. In April this year, UK GDP plummeted a record 20%, a 20-fold increase on any monthly economic contraction the UK experienced throughout the 2008–09 global financial crisis.

If the UK’s post-Brexit economic performance remains consistently below average, this is likely to impact Britain’s outward investment position in Australia considerably. This will be exacerbated by diminished London trade in euro-denominated bonds, derivatives and other commercial paper. The EU may also introduce legislation to restrict euro-clearing outside the Eurozone, as the battle over Europe’s $101 trillion derivatives trade intensifies.

Inside the European Council building (Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)


On average, London clears over €920 billion (A$1.5 trillion) per day in euro-denominated contracts, including $550 billion daily in euro derivatives trades. The repatriation of these transactions to the Eurozone would cause significant harm to London as a global financial centre. In 2018, combined Australian foreign portfolio investment and foreign direct investment in the EU exceeded $700 billion, although investment hosting was dominated by Britain.

If London loses even partial access to the EU single market in financial services – which appears inevitable – then Australian banks and fund managers are likely to seek EU investment opportunities, particularly as the forthcoming EU-Australia FTA will provide increased market access for Australian firms and investors. Throughout the last two years, Australian banks, including Westpac, CBA and Macquarie, have already sought to manage the financial risks associated with a no-deal or suboptimal Brexit in December 2020 by establishing offices in Dublin, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris.

Australia’s “networked FTAs” concept recognises that it is dangerous to become excessively dependent upon an individual state or region to build its trade and investment strategy. Asia remains Canberra’s biggest trade partner, but European and British outflows, accounting for one third of Australian investment, is more than double Asian foreign investment. Consequently, the revitalisation of the EU and UK economies is critical to Australia’s post-Covid economic recovery.

A strategic stake in a digital future

One of the bigger “winners” from the new EU budget and Recovery and Resilience Fund is the digital economy sector. This includes an allocation of €6.7 billion towards programs to fund “high-performance computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity” sector, which had already been given a “huge boost” in the last budget.

The EU’s spending strategy will include investment into large-scale pilot programs in the agricultural sector, broadband networks and 5G, AI, defence and cybersecurity. The ultimate aim is to increase the international competitiveness of the European tech industry, which lags behind its US and Chinese counterparts.

This EU investment into its digital future potentially offers many market opportunities for Australian tech firms that could benefit from joint R&D ventures. All EU members (except the UK, which is still formally part of the EU) will need to produce clear plans over the next two months on national recovery and economic reforms, with RRF funding tied to progress in meeting specific targets. As Politico analyst Zoya Sheftalovich pointedly observed, Australia has already “found cover” under the EU’s wings in one phase of its diplomatic spat with China; consequently, there are many opportunities stemming from the EU’s historic recovery package and budget deal for Australia, including the EU’s flagship Horizon R&D program.

It may have taken a while to settle, but the budget agreement in Brussels is a big deal for Australia.

Declaration of interest: Remy Davison receives funding from the EU Commission.

In Malaysia’s Covid “infodemic”, crime is all too easy

(Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images)
(Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 20 Aug 2020 07:00   0 Comments

In Malaysia earlier this month, it was reported a woman had been nabbed by the police for spreading false information relating to a supermarket closure in the northern state of Penang. Her alleged crime? A Facebook post which read:

The suspected case at Flat Tuna has been confirmed positive. The patient went shopping at Billion, Bandar Sunway. Billion has been closed until a date to be announced later for sanitisation.

This was one of at least 260 investigations opened since January into Covid-19–related false information by the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the country’s content regulator. As of July, 17 people had gone through trial and been found guilty, another 13 were in the midst of trial, with 30 more charged and 12 warning notices issued, while the remaining cases were still under investigation.

Notably, PDRM and MCMC have been issuing public warnings since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic not to spread unverified information. In lieu of the now-repealed Anti-Fake News Act 2018, the authorities are giving teeth to their warnings with legislation such as Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 and Section 505(b) of the Penal Code.

The former makes the “improper use of network facilities” an offence, while the latter criminalises “statements conducive to public mischief”. Ostensibly, this is meant to impose punitive costs to creators of false information and deter would-be creators, while fostering awareness of how creating and perhaps even sharing false information is an offence under the law.

At face value, this strategy seems to be working. On 11 June, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who heads internal security and non-health-related efforts in Malaysia’s fight against Covid-19, announced that neither the PDRM or MCMC had opened any new investigation related to Covid-19 fake news for the period of 28 May to 11 June. According to Ismail, “this shows that public awareness has increased over the importance of not sharing fake news”.

Beneath the surface, however, issues relating to the apparent success of the Malaysian government in dealing with false information about Covid-19 are evident.

(Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images)


The first and most obvious relates to the authorities’ reliance on the vaguely worded, broadly applicable sections of the law. Besides placing the bar ridiculously low for content to be illegal if it causes annoyance to another person, the fact that it was passed in the 20th century, predating the modern typology of false information, means that it does not – by design – distinguish between the challenges as understood today.

For example, the differences between “misinformation”, which is essentially false information spread through an honest mistake, “disinformation”, defined as deliberately created false information to deceive or mislead, and “malinformation”, referring to deliberately created false information to cause harm, are not reflected in the legal provisions.

This means that ostensibly innocent intentions, such as an effort to warn friends to be extra cautious during this pandemic, could lead to a person being found guilty under the law.

The second issue relates to the government’s feeble attempt to address false information about Covid-19 through its public information campaigns. While there have been periodical reminders for the public not to share unverified information, coupled with catchy slogans such as “tak pasti, jangan kongsi” (“not sure, don’t share”) and “pastikan sahih” (“ensure its verified”), these should only be seen as the bare minimum.

Even the government’s more valiant efforts in the form of fact-checking ­– spearheaded by, the government-operated one-stop centre for debunking false information, and the Quick Response Team, established in March to rapidly verify any viral news – will, unfortunately, be hamstrung as merely reactive measures.

While not foolproof, digital literacy skills would better allow people to spot false information, which could then reduce the number of times it is forwarded on to a larger audience.

This points to the third issue – which is arguably at the root of the problem: the lack of efforts to equip the public with the digital literacy skills that are necessary to filter the large amount of information that can be gained on the internet.

These digital literacy skills refer to basic practices such as cross-referencing sources of information to check its veracity, reverse image-searching photos to see if they have appeared elsewhere in a different context, or spotting telltale cues in photos and/or videos that could help identify when and where they were made.

While not foolproof, such skills would better allow people to spot false information, which could then reduce the number of times it is forwarded on to a larger audience. If people are not equipped with these skills, it is hard to imagine how the public could inculcate a habit of fact-checking information.

And without these skills, society is left vulnerable to being misled about the dangers of the virus. Worse still, when coupled with the government’s reliance on vaguely worded, broadly applicable legislation to deal with false information during the pandemic, ordinary people who merely want to share information risk running afoul of the law.

It is only natural that during this time of heightened anxiety people will want to share information that they feel could be beneficial or helpful to others. The Malaysian government ought to rethink why the onus is placed on the public to not spread false information when they could, genuinely, not have known any better.

Diplomacy and global governance after Covid‑19: Prepare for change

UN General Assembly, New York (Cia Pak/UN Photo)
UN General Assembly, New York (Cia Pak/UN Photo)
Published 18 Aug 2020 14:30   0 Comments

Regardless of whether recovery from Covid-19 occurs over a short or medium-term period, it’s clear the experience will have a lasting impact on diplomacy and global governance. Covid-19 has sped up transformations stemming from long-term trends in foreign policy management, multilateral governance administration and digital technology use. With inevitably tighter budgets, foreign ministries will face some tough choices over the coming years.

First, Covid-19 has furthered the long-term trend of increasing executive power over foreign policy decision-making and administration. The trend can be seen across the majority of countries in any number of metrics, from the balance of political appointees versus career professionals in ambassadorial appointments to the size of departmental budgets. Obviously, it has been more intense in certain countries than others – and exacerbated by inappropriate communication strategies and social media.

Covid-19, much like the immediate crisis decision-making responses following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, necessitated greater executive control over foreign policy. But also, like terrorism, the threat from pandemic disease may never fully disappear, meaning decision-making practices passed over to the executive are likely to remain there.

Second, Covid-19 has brought out growing dissatisfaction with multilateral governance. There’s long been recognition that the current system of global governance doesn’t fully reflect strategic realities (G7/8, OECD), is increasingly unable to achieve its aims (WTO, WIPO), is political more than practical (WHO, UNHRC), and has become bloated, inefficient, and corrupt (UN, FIFA, IOC).

The days of diplomatic travel, hotels and restaurants, to attend what most publics see as a pointless political talkfest, will be replaced by late night zoom sessions, document sharing software and food from the local takeaway.

There’ll be no better display of this than the UN General Assembly debate where global leaders speak in September.

Normally, the largest event on the multilateral calendar, attended by massive executive, foreign ministry, and media delegations, the UNGA General Debate leaders’ presentations will this year be replaced by pre-recorded video and/or online presentations with only diplomats already in New York present – the first ever “virtual General Assembly”. After this event, the biggest question asked will be “why haven’t we been doing this for the last 20 years?”. The days of diplomatic travel, hotels and restaurants, to attend what most publics see as a pointless political talkfest, will be replaced by late night zoom sessions, document sharing software and food from the local takeaway.

Third, Covid-19 has forced even resistant foreign ministries to adapt to digital technology. To begin with, the implementation of digital practices proved difficult and frustrating. Digital diplomacy gives fewer opportunities for networking, off-the-record floating of ideas, and using non-verbal signals. Additionally, individual diplomats have faced challenges and disruptions to professional and family life with quarantine and travel restrictions. But over time, these practices are becoming more routine.

Australia’s Marise Payne speaks to a video conference for the Special ASEAN-Australia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Covid-19 (ASEAN Secretariat/Flickr)

Preferred techniques are being shared and improved, new skill sets are being developed and personnel training strategies implemented, and new job roles and specialisations are being created. Perhaps most importantly, the use of digital technologies are becoming viewed as more practical, efficient, and time saving.

Wholesale adaptation to an online environment presents cost-savings that would be impossible in an all in-person environment. The more time spent in the digital diplomacy environment, the less likely foreign ministries will return to previous practices. As has been noted by commentators in the education, business, and retail fields, the changes precipitated by Covid-19 are here to stay.

Finally, most foreign ministries will face budget pressures over the next five years. There will be less travel and overseas nationals, meaning a less supportive constituency. With much of their work hidden and/or difficult to assign to performance indicators, foreign ministries have always been targets for budget cuts. Add to this increased executive power over foreign policy, growing dissatisfaction with multilateral governance, and potential cost-savings from continued use of digital technology practices, and the calls for budget cuts to foreign ministries will increase.

Together, these changes suggest policymakers will need to make hard decisions across a range of activities – including on initiatives that have come to be seen as routine. For Australia, MIKTA serves as an example.

Australia joined the informal partnership with Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey with the aim to build a coalition within the G20. Highly optimistic commentators immediately jumped to support the initiative on the hopes of a “middle power revival” to save global governance. Seven years later, the G20’s relevance as a platform for addressing global issues has declined. Hopes for a middle power revival have dissipated, and Australia and South Korea now aim to secure more direct influence by joining an expanded G7/G8.

In exculpatory anticipation, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trades’s MIKTA website page answers the question “Why MIKTA?” with public service doublespeak, noting that members  both “share important fundamental values and interests” and “diversity … to build consensus”. For practitioners, having any platform to work with non-traditional partners, and work ever more closely with traditional partners is important and serves a purpose. For those looking to secure cost savings, concrete achievements matter much more. As MIKTA turns to covering issues related to Covid-19, it could also ultimately become a victim.

Even with a rapid return to normality, the trends and the changes already brought out will have an ongoing impact. Post-pandemic planning for foreign ministries has the potential to bring transformational change to diplomacy and global government.

The UN Secretary-General’s conference room, New York (Kim Haughton/UN Photo)

Cambodia: Hard choices

Cambodian soldiers carry aid including medical equipment from China to be used to combat the spread of the Covid-19, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
Cambodian soldiers carry aid including medical equipment from China to be used to combat the spread of the Covid-19, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 11 Aug 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Cambodia’s foreign policy has been largely driven by the politics of survival, as the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has an ambition to perpetuate its domination of Cambodian politics for at least another 50 years.

Of course, this survival instinct is meshed with other factors to determine the direction Cambodia adopts in the world. One is economic pragmatism, as the country seeks to sustain growth and diversify its export markets – with economic success a vital source of legitimacy for the CPP-led government. Another is multilateralism, as Cambodia continues to try to integrate itself into the region after the truma of the war years.

Yet these economic and multilateral aims have been upended by the Covid-19 crisis.

Cambodia appears to have so far managed the threat from the virus relatively well, despite initially downplaying its potential severity. Up till now, there has been no recorded community transmission, although the number of cases has spiked in recent weeks, with 248 recorded cases and no deaths, according to figures from the World Health Organisation. All of the confirmed cases since May have been imported cases as Cambodians working and studying abroad return home.

But big challenges remain. Prior to the pandemic, Cambodia’s foreign policy has received considerable media and academic attention for its increasing alignment with China, seemingly to the expense of its relations with countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other key partners such as the United States. Criticism of Cambodia’s domestic politics had also stained Cambodia’s international image. The US has imposed sanctions on Hun Sen, and the European Union has been critical of what it saw as increasing authoritarianism.

While the EU is cheered by some who make a convincing argument that Cambodia should be punished for democratic backsliding, others accuse the EU of treating Cambodia unjustly and practising double standards.

An EU decision to strip Cambodia of a tariff exemption has led to a particularly heated debate. Europe is a key export market for Cambodia, but the EU decision to withdraw its “Everything But Arms” trade scheme, set to take effect from 12 August, will carry a heavy price. While the EU is cheered by some who make a convincing argument that Cambodia should be punished for democratic backsliding, others accuse the EU of treating Cambodia unjustly and practising double standards, given it has signed a free trade agreement with communist states such as Vietnam.

Some analysts have also rightly warned the suspension of the trade scheme, albeit a partial withdrawal, is likely to force Cambodia to further embrace China in order to sustain economic growth. Just last month, Phnom Penh and Beijing finalised a free trade agreement allowing duty-free trade in hundreds of products between the two countries. Although the trade deal appears to benefit China more than Cambodia, given the unbalanced trade volumes and Cambodia’s trade deficit, the agreement nonetheless shores up an export market just as the EU partial ban comes into effect.

Cambodia’s government has a vision to become an upper middle-income country in the next decade. Yet allowing the country to be caught in the middle of great power competition will not advance this ambition. Instead, the Cambodian government needs to convincingly demonstrate the principles of “permanent neutrality and non-alignment” as enshrined in its constitution. That means reaching out to many partners, driven by multilateralism. The regime’s survival might just depend on it.

The invisible during the pandemic

A migrant worker stands outside a makeshift dormitory room at a stalled construction site in Singapore in May (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
A migrant worker stands outside a makeshift dormitory room at a stalled construction site in Singapore in May (Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
Published 5 Aug 2020 14:00   1 Comments

Recently in Singapore, several migrant workers attempted suicide at their dormitories, with at least one death. According to the authorities, some of them did so because they failed to get employers’ permission to leave the city after purchasing flight tickets (in Singapore, a migrant worker’s work permit is tied to the employer, and the employer usually keeps the worker’s passport, and has the authority to cancel the permit and repatriate the worker). Fortunately, most of the suicide attempts were averted by officers on site, and some of the migrants eventually made their journey home. Their ordeal won this group great amount of attention and sympathy in Singapore, where attempted suicide was only decriminalised as recently as January.

For the 323,000 migrant workers who live in shared dormitories in Singapore, earning money before going home has always been their top dream, while making headlines for attempting suicide is certainly not something they would have seen coming. The sudden hardships of 2020 have changed everything.

Migrant workers from countries such as China, Bangladesh and India are a major force powering the Singaporean economy, from building the city-state’s glittering skyscrapers to cleaning its gleaming shopping centres, yet they have been – metaphorically and literally – “the invisible”. They live in high-density dormitories in the island’s far-flung outskirts and commute to and from work packed into the backs of trucks. Even in my own few years being based periodically in Singapore, my exposure to this community is still limited.

This prosperous first-world island nation had been a success story in the global battle against coronavirus, until the outbreak brought attention to the predicament of its vulnerable low-wage foreign labourers.

The first time I encountered their story was back in 2016, when a journalism fellowship program took us to a sprawling dormitory complex. I noticed the warnings posted at the entrance listing all sorts of infringements the labourers could be fined for. We were told the residents there had behaved quite well. The dormitory room we went into accommodated 12 men and was stuffy and frowzy in the summer-all-year tropical city. Island-wide, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers lived in this type of dormitory.

I talked to one worker who came from China’s hinterland and had been working there for a few years. He didn’t complain at all about the living or working conditions, and was proud he was earning a better pay that enabled him to support his family, in spite of bearing debts for paying agent fees to secure a job that locals usually considered low-paid and would not take.

A year later, in 2017, I came across another story involving a Singapore-based Chinese migrant worker, when my friend, a Straits Times labour correspondent shared it with me. A then-39-year-old construction worker was severely injured when a slab of prefabricated concrete wall being hoisted by a crane fell on him. He was certified by doctors as completely disabled and unable to work for the rest of his life, and eventually received SG$327,500 (A$330,650) in compensation, the highest amount an injured worker can get. In a way, he was considered a “lucky one”, as for similar cases, “some could end up leaving Singapore empty-handed”, my fellow journalist told me.

Over the first three months since the Covid-19 outbreak started, this prosperous first-world island nation had been a success story in the global battle against coronavirus and was lauded for its gold-standard approach to testing and tracing, until the outbreak brought attention to the predicament of its vulnerable low-wage foreign labourers.

The island nation of 5.7 million has more than 1.42 million foreign workers, over 1 million of them doing “low-skilled” work. Strikingly, migrant workers account for more than 90% of Singapore’s over 50,000 coronavirus infections as of late July.

A migrant worker sits on his bed in a construction site (Ore Huiying/Getty Images)

Starting in early April, the city-state went through a two-month “circuit breaker” period – when people were ordered to stay home and businesses paused. Then over the recent two months, restrictions have been loosened in a few phrases ­– except in the migrant neighbourhoods.

After the initial shock, four months later, Singaporeans have grown used to the three-digit daily new case figure. The numbers are always updated in two parts – the migrant neighbourhood case number, and a much smaller community case number. For the mainstream Singapore society, memories of lockdown are fading, there are long lines outside of restaurants and parks are back. To the labourers however, it’s a very different picture. For four months, they have had no work and no regular income to make, except a moderate government assistance. Isolated and panicked, going back home has become their priority, even though a flight ticket could cost them several months’ allowance.

Singapore is by no means the only country that relies heavily on guest labourers and bears the responsibility of taking better care of them. There are an estimated 164 million migrant workers worldwide who are similarly vulnerable both to the disease and the economic pain it has brought. And the issue is particularly acute in Asia: 2017 data shows there were about 33 million migrant workers, accounting for 20% of the global total.

It is a common trope that some cultural attributes often seen as characteristically Asian – such as obedience to authority, tolerance to restrictions on personal freedom and acceptance of delayed gratification after perseverance – may have helped in the region’s relative success containing the disease. To some extent, however, this kind of mindset may at the same time have exacerbated the problems the continent’s silent groups are facing.

Nevertheless, many Asian workers are hardworking, optimistic and hopeful. Despite all the hardships, it is reported that a vast majority of migrant labourers choose to continue working in Singapore well beyond their first contract.

The good news is their future here may become brighter. Like the ancient Chinese proverb goes, “It’s never too late to mend”. The Singaporean authorities have announced that temporary structures will be built by the end of the year, accommodating more than 50,000 migrant workers, with other permanent dormitories to house up to 100,000 to be built in the years to come. The new standards will reduce density and improve air circulation in those complexes. The government is also working on providing the migrants easier access to medical care and support. 

I don’t know if those heartbroken suicidal workers who went back to their home countries will ever come back to Singapore to make a living again after the crisis. What I do know is that, regardless, the post-pandemic era should not just be “ours”, but “theirs”, too.

Under the influence: Peddling conspiracy in a pandemic

“QAnon” supporters during Independence Day celebrations in Washington, DC (Evelyn Hockstein/Washington Post via Getty Images)
“QAnon” supporters during Independence Day celebrations in Washington, DC (Evelyn Hockstein/Washington Post via Getty Images)
Published 3 Aug 2020 13:30   0 Comments

Celebrity sells – it always has. But in the digital age, the boundaries of celebrity have changed. Once it was the prerogative of movie, sports or music stars to front a fashion label or promote perfume. But nowadays the marketplace is saturated with any number of online lifestyle and wellness “influencers”, social media users who by virtue of their taste, niche expertise or marketing savvy develop audiences of thousands – sometimes millions – who seek to emulate their lifestyle.

And promoting products is only the beginning. Such influencers can have a profound effect in imparting attitudes and beliefs, too.

Most of the time, this is harmless, a new thread in the media milieu. Yet at a time of pandemic, where medical advice is heavily contested and conspiracy theories from the dark reaches of the internet have proliferated, some online lifestyle influencers are amplifying misinformation and disinformation.

In a new twist during the Covid-19 crisis, three formerly distinct online ecosystems – those occupied by lifestyle/wellness influencers, “QAnon” conspiracy believers, and violent extremists – have in some instances become intertwined, through shared conspiracy-related hashtags and wild claims about the dangers of vaccines, 5G and the evils of the “deep state”. 

QAnon is not only a conspiracy movement. It has also been deemed a domestic terror threat by the FBI.

Numerous recent studies and news reports have shown that extremist groups are exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic in an attempt to justify their narratives, recruit followers or incite violence. Extremist narratives have always contained strong conspiratorial elements, and this time is no different. Coronavirus-related conspiracies are deftly interwoven through extremist narratives and mobilisation efforts.

But the connection with online lifestyle and wellness influencers marks a change. This crossover came about after some online lifestyle and wellness influencers became entrepreneurs of conspiracy theories, using them to boost their profiles and to promote and validate their views of wellness. One of the more dangerous conspiracies promoted by  lifestyle/wellness influencers are QAnon conspiracies.

The QAnon movement has its origins in the so-called “pizzagate” conspiracy of 2016. In its current form, QAnon alleges that there is a US government insider with a “Q-level clearance” who is communicating cryptically with his followers online. QAnon followers believe there is a “deep state” within the US government that is controlled by a cabal of Democrats and liberal Hollywood celebrities who are also Satan-worshiping paedophiles. Through Q, President Donald Trump was manifested to expose and shut down these ritualistic paedophile rings. During the Covid-19 pandemic, QAnon conspiracy groups and posts have also promoted the idea that the pandemic was, alternately, another deep-state plot, a hoax, and a Chinese bio-weapon, among other health disinformation.

However, QAnon is not only a conspiracy movement. It has also been deemed a domestic terror threat by the FBI. A leaked FBI memo written in May 2019 assessed QAnon believers as “conspiracy-driven domestic extremists” and that QAnon and other crowd sourced conspiracies would “very likely motivate some domestic extremists to commit criminal and sometimes violent activity”.

The memo cited two violent incidents linked to QAnon, but there have been at least three other violent incidents since its publication, with researchers also examining its spread beyond the United States. What started as a US-based pro-Trump conspiracy movement has now gone global and includes a number of proponents in Australia, reportedly including a family friend of the Prime Minister with a substantial social media following.

An anti-lockdown protest in Stuttgart, Germany in May (Sebastian Gollnow via Getty Images)


A recent article by Insider magazine highlighted a number of lifestyle influencers who were posting QAnon conspiracies related to the pandemic. Outlets such as Buzzfeed, Mother Jones and Huffington Post have also revealed a string of other popular lifestyle, design and wellness influencers who have become vectors of Covid-19 and QAnon conspiracies. Some have latched onto the discredited “plandemic” film released in May or QAnon memes, variously claiming the coronavirus is fake, or that the deep state is responsible for spreading the virus, or that pandemic lockdown measures are a tool of oppression. Still others have encouraged followers to attend anti-lockdown protests which have included a number of far-right extremists in their midst. 

Ironically, one of the most widely shared erroneous memes about the virus being spread by people in China eating bat soup, which was created and circulated by conspiracy theorists and extremists alike, was itself appropriated from a Chinese online influencer and celebrity vlogger, who said that a video of her eating a local delicacy of bat soup in Palau for her vlog was “hijacked by accounts fanning out malicious panic”.

By promoting conspiracies or “alternative” information in the name of wellness and alternative lifestyles, the online influencers of today can serve, however unwittingly, as a gateway directing users to further, darker corners of the internet.

The intersection between wellness and violent conspiracies seems unexpected, but the wellness movement has its origins in anti-establishment and anti-mainstream medical circles. Scholars such as Charlotte Ward and David Vaos have examined the confluence of new age wellness and conspiracy, which they termed “conspirituality”, an intersection between new age wellness, belief in the dangers of a “new world order” and big pharma, and a shared emphasis on “awakening” and revealing truths.

Until recently, the convergence of wellness and conspiracy in a drive for awakening and societal change emphasised the non-violent and the peaceful. However, the emergence of the QAnon movement has pushed things in a more troubling direction.

The online links between far right, QAnon conspiracy groups and some online wellness and lifestyle influencers have grown during the pandemic, the ensuing lockdown and response to restrictions. Online wellness and lifestyle influencers who peddle QAnon conspiracy theories about the pandemic can potentially drive traffic to online extremist groups through shared QAnon related hashtags such as #QAnon, #TheGreatAwakening, #Plandemic, #GermJihad, #MAGA, #whitegenocide #WWG1WGA or #coronavirushoax. This can also be done when influencers have used memes and iconography also appropriated by right-wing extremists – for example “red pill blue pill”, “falling down the rabbit hole”, or “where we go one we go all”.

More analysis is needed, but there is emerging evidence to suggest that online influencers’ posts related to QAnon are being cross-posted and referenced by extremists groups on online forums. And by promoting conspiracies or “alternative” information in the name of wellness and alternative lifestyles, the online influencers of today can serve, however unwittingly, as a gateway directing users to further, darker corners of the internet.

QAnon posts can be interspersed among others promoting stylised photos of fashion, workouts and recipes (Unsplash)


Social media lifestyle influencers posting about QAnon not only serve to normalise this fringe movement, but can potentially undermine efforts by internet companies to “de-platform” purveyors of disinformation, label misleading posts and weed out prohibited content (as identified in their terms of service). Internet companies such as Reddit have banned QAnon forums for inciting violence. Facebook has banned a number of QAnon pages for inauthentic behaviour ,and Apple has removed a QAnon app from its store. Twitter recently announced it is suspending thousands of QAnon accounts. But QAnon posts still flourish online.

Because lifestyle and wellness influencers generate substantial revenue, have helped build social media businesses, and have not generally intersected with extremist movements before, there is a danger that influencers will escape extremist content reporting and moderation. Furthermore, influencer posts are likely to reach a wider audience than extremist group posts as they are less scrutinised by social media mechanisms monitoring extremist content.

Lifestyle and wellness influencers are particularly challenging because, as numerous surveys have found, influencer marketing has exploded. More and more people are turning to influencers and online personalities for inspiration, recommendations and purchasing advise. Online influencers who’ve latched onto QAnon present conspiracies in an engaging, appealing and relatable manner, often interspersing posts promoting QAnon among stylised photos of fashion, workouts and recipes. The same skills that these influencers use for consumer brand marketing have helped turn an outlandish conspiracy theory into an “acceptable option in the market place of ideas”.

A expanded version of this article is available at Global Network on Extremism and Technology of which the Lowy Institute is a core partner. This article is part of a year long series examining extremism and technology.

Pacific islands: The cost to tomorrow of the crisis today

Home schooling in Fiji during the Covid-19 lockdown (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Home schooling in Fiji during the Covid-19 lockdown (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Published 30 Jul 2020 10:00   0 Comments

The global economic recession triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic will have acute repercussions for the youth of today – both now and for their inheritance. The International Labour Organization recently warned the economic crisis is hitting younger people “harder and faster than any other group”. And it is adding fuel to existing grievances. This year, unemployment and floundering economies, especially in association with corruption, poor governance, entrenched political elites and now the pandemic, have intensified youth-dominated protest movements, for instance, in Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria.

And, while there will be few people anywhere left unaffected, the disproportionate brunt will be borne by developing countries, where youth populations are more likely to be dominant. This includes Australia’s immediate region – at least half of all Pacific Islanders are aged under 23 years, constituting a “youth bulge” in numbers alone. 

When I first began delving into the ramifications of the youth bulge in the Pacific for a recently published Lowy Institute report, Covid-19 wasn’t even on the horizon. But, as it turns out, there couldn’t be a more prescient time than now to examine this topic, as the virus intensifies the pressures on people’s lives and their future prospects.

Challenges to development and prosperity in the region, such as climate change, disaster resilience, gender inequality and non-communicable diseases, have been on the media radar. But the scale is growing, with the population of the Pacific Islands forecast to expand from 11.9 million to 19.7 million by 2050. Population growth could have the single greatest effect on every development sector in the region, including progress in health, education, economic development and employment, and the fate of peace and stability, not to mention the capacity of infrastructure and services.

Building these successes on a larger scale is a must, as the latest figures tell us that one in six young people worldwide have lost jobs or incomes since the emergence of coronavirus.

This is not to push an alarmist view. During long periods spent reporting on the ground in the region over the past decade, especially in the most populous Melanesian island states of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, the reality of how youth and their views of the future are being affected, for example, by unemployment, low literacy, rural underdevelopment, persistent poverty and corruption, is more than evident.

At the same time, there are many stories of young men and women who have overcome adversity with life-changing success. When I interviewed Patrick Arathe in 2013 in the islands of Western Province in the Solomon Islands, he was 23 years old and had developed a farming enterprise with a group of young boys. It had grown to be a major supplier of fresh produce to the local hospital, businesses and surrounding communities. The profits of the enterprise were invested in the boys’ welfare and education. Meanwhile in Honiara’s main market, there are many young women displaying creativity and enterprise in their businesses of growing and selling spectacular tropical flowers.

In the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea, I encountered a rural village gang in the Kamanabe area who had renounced a notorious career in carjacking, mugging and extortion on the nearby Highlands Highway to form a youth co-operative committed to generating legitimate incomes from producing honey.

Building these successes on a larger scale is a must, as the latest figures tell us that one in six young people worldwide have lost jobs or incomes since the emergence of coronavirus.

Before the pandemic, global youth unemployment was 13.6%. In Australia, it was 12%, but across the Pacific Islands region, it was an estimated 23%, rising to an estimated more than 40% in the Solomon Islands. Needless to say, these statistics will rise.

The region’s youth bulge is the result of high fertility rates, low use of family planning and a strong tradition of large families that are a vital social support network in countries where pensions and government-provided social services are limited.

Most Pacific governments are well aware of these issues and acknowledge the challenges. Last year, PNG Prime Minister James Marape publicly stated: “We have a responsibility to ensure that we invest in our future, so that our children, our children’s children and all those that come beyond have a strong foundation.” But there is a huge gap in the region between devising policies and programs, on the one hand, and then securing the funds, resources, expertise and manpower to successfully implement the solutions on the scale needed. This is the real struggle.

The to-do list is long: improving quality education and literacy outcomes, extending the reach of services and economic opportunities to the large cohorts of youth in rural areas, and diversifying the mineral and natural resource–dependent, but job-poor, economies of PNG and Solomon Islands. Then there is preventing the next generation inheriting the disability burden of non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Large numbers of young people are not a disadvantage or threat – quite the opposite, if they experience opportunity and fulfilment. But, as the Bougainville civil conflict in the 1990s and civil unrest in Honiara in 2006 and 2019 have shown, weak governance, corruption, inequality and economic crises can push the grievances of the most vulnerable. Today, young Pacific Islanders are increasing their demands to be heard on political issues, and they are impatient and frustrated with corruption and cronyism in structures of power and leadership.

As the youth demographic in the Pacific progresses towards an expected peak by the middle of the century, now is the time for a long-term view of our international development and aid ties with the region and the dividends of supporting efforts towards a region capable of channelling the energy, enterprise and leadership of the younger generation.

Europe, united in recovery – for now

LIBER Europe/Flickr
LIBER Europe/Flickr
Published 29 Jul 2020 10:00   0 Comments

It took four days and a “historical” summit for the heads of states and governments of Europe to finally agree on the recovery plan that should help the European Union face the devastating consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Celebrated by a recovery in local stocks, the agreement last week marks an important step forward for European solidarity. But the length and the many concessions made to reach this accord also reflect the need to reform the current model of the Union.

The recovery plan – ambitiously called “Next Generation EU” – will put €750 billion (A$1.2 trillion) on the table, split between €390 billion in grants and €360 billion in low-interest loans, funded by Brussels-issued bonds, backed by all 27 members, and repayable over the 30 years from 2028.

The agreement is historical both for its size and the financial mechanisms behind it.  

While this is not the first time that Brussels has borrowed on the markets on behalf of member states, it has never done so in such magnitude. Funds for the plan will come from bonds issued directly by the EU in its own name and guaranteed by its own revenues (instead of using funds raised by national governments). The money will be distributed by the European Commission to industries and regions most affected by the crisis. Budgetary allocations will then have to be reimbursed, via an allocation key similar to the contribution of member states to the EU, and not according to what each state has received.

The length, the compromises and the difficulties in which negotiations took place demonstrate the inadequacy of the EU institutional system in times of urgency.

For the first time in its history, Europe will borrow money to distribute it among its member states, according to the needs and priorities of each. In itself, this represents a form of so-called mutualised borrowing.

But this “historical” moment almost never materialised. Indeed, negotiations stumbled in the face of different, sometimes opposite, vision of Europe.

On one side were the so-called “Southern” countries, most affected by Covid-19 but also the most indebted (Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, France), who support a federalist system of common debt, and joined since May by Germany, a champion of budgetary rigour and the draconian criteria of Maastricht.

On the other sat Austria and its partners, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden (AKA the “Frugal Four”), recently joined by Finland. True to their role as strict guardians of financial orthodoxy, these members constantly opposed any creation of a common debt and were ready to grant loans rather than European aid to the European Union states in difficulty.

Despite the urgency of the Covid-19 crisis, reaching an agreement for stronger fiscal coordination was difficult and time-consuming. To reach unanimity, the plan had to dramatically downscale its ambition and increase concessions.

While Next Generation EU can be seen as a decisive step forward in the European integration process, it falls short of institutionalising a more federal system in two distinct ways.

First, the plan doesn’t clearly secure Europe’s own resources. To repay such gigantic loans, member states have several options: either they raise their national contribution (increasing pressure on citizens), or they reduce their European spending. Another solution would be for the EU to allocate its “own resources” to Europe. In essence, the Commission would levy taxes – it already does so in a few rare cases, and for very small amounts – making part of the Community budget no longer dependent on national treasuries.

This would allow the European Parliament to direct common investments (for instance, towards defence, research and health systems) while allowing members states to better devote themselves to domestic public policies.

While the principle was acted upon at the summit, the 27 refrained from going too far on this subject, knowing the repayment deadline is still in the far distant future.

Secondly, this four-day European Council meeting confirmed the need to reform the European decision-making process and its institutions. The length, the compromises, and the difficulties in which negotiations took place demonstrate the inadequacy of the EU institutional system in times of urgency, and in particular the need to put an end to the rule of unanimity.

It is no longer acceptable to suspend the action of the whole Union by this rule, giving any member a right of veto to block decision-making. The Union must prefer the principle of qualified majority to its current model and reform itself in order to establish a genuine European federal democracy.

With Next Generation EU, Europe has taken a giant leap for the Union, but only a small, temporary step towards federalism. The plan now needs ratification by the European Parliament, which is not a given.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. As the grim milestone of 650,000 deaths from Covid-19 has been crossed worldwide, many European countries have decided to enhance health measures, once again costing their economies.

What’s the secret to Southeast Asia’s Covid success stories?

First day of school after the Thai government eased isolation measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, 1 July 2020 in Bangkok (Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
First day of school after the Thai government eased isolation measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, 1 July 2020 in Bangkok (Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 28 Jul 2020 06:00   0 Comments

After almost seven months, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to challenge the world, but some places seem to have managed surprisingly well. Thailand has not reported any local transmission for over 60 days. The countries of the Mekong region have reported so few cases that many people are asking whether their success is real – and if it is, how are they doing it? The New York Times went as far as to report that “no one knows what Thailand is doing right”.

The reality is that there’s no mystery. The strategy behind these successes is based on the same basic factors: prioritising health above economic concerns, producing excellent public communications, enforcing early border controls, and mandating behaviour change – a strict lockdown, widespread use of masks and physical barriers, and avoiding indoor or confined spaces. These things work.

We can be fairly confident that the situation claimed in these countries is real because Covid-19 is not subtle. Exponential growth of a disease that leaves highly infectious people in hospital for weeks inevitably means the end of your health system within two months and widespread panic leading to economic collapse.

If Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos had been running an ineffective strategy for six months, they would be overrun by disease. If they were trying to cover that up, social media would be full of fearful rumours, evidence of mass graves, dead hospital staff – the signs of a coverup seen in Wuhan in January and February are not making themselves known in these countries today. There are no signs of a cover up, therefore there is no mass outbreak, therefore whatever they’re doing is working. Laos is a slight exception here, having confirmed just 19 cases and lacking the transparency to alleviate rumours. But even there, evidence of a runaway hidden epidemic is not forthcoming.

Stopping Covid-19 does not require taking political prisoners, arresting activists, human rights defenders, journalists or opposition party members. It does not require harassing unionists or alleging treason against political opponents.

How can it possibly be working with so few tests (with almost 15 times New Zealand’s population, Thailand has performed just 40% more tests)?

High levels of testing are critical if your strategy is to identify infected people then isolate them and their close contacts individually. But testing isn’t a requirement for a strategy based on universal compliance – mandatory quarantine for new arrivals, nationwide lockdown, and nationwide use of masks and barriers don’t rely on identifying who is infected. All that’s required is good leadership and effective communication.

The sum of their actions is a comprehensive strategy that has been working. So long as their borders remain well controlled and they continue using physical barriers and masks, these countries likely to continue to see relative success.

Why have they mostly done the right thing when others seem incapable, despite the simplicity?

Weather and architecture may have made it easier for the public to avoid enclosed spaces. But the big difference has been attitude – both of leaders and of the public.

The Mekong countries never thought they were immune from a problem in the People’s Republic of China. And they have vivid memories of the 2003 SARS epidemic. They took the threat seriously from early on and responded with a SARS strategy, not a seasonal flu strategy.

Thailand began screening all airport arrivals for fever on 3 January (two days before the PRC confirmed to the World Health Organisation that they had identified a “pneumonia of unknown cause”). Ten days later, Thailand confirmed its first case: the first known case outside the PRC. After confirming just 800 cases, Thailand announced a state of emergency and began a strict lockdown on 26 March. They only began easing the lockdown in May.

Healthcare workers at Bamrasnaradura Infectious Disease Institute, in Nonthaburi, Thailand, 2 April 2020 (UN Women Asia and the Pacific)

Most importantly, the government strongly encouraged people from the start to avoid crowds and confined spaces, and to always wear cloth masks when they left home. Masks are a familiar accessory in the region, often worn to reduce pollution inhalation, and people remember SARS and other coronavirus epidemics, so the public was quick to respond.

Like Thailand, Vietnam went early and hard, prioritising health over other concerns. It began strict border controls in January, cancelled public events and schools, strictly enforced wearing masks, shut all non-essential services and imposed a three-week lockdown in April. Also like Thailand, Vietnam employed extensive contact tracing, but only targeted testing.

Laos had some advantage from fewer international arrivals than Thailand or Vietnam, but the first case was confirmed on 24 March. Just five days later, the government announced a strict lockdown and closed all borders. The lockdown lasted nearly seven weeks, while international arrivals continued to be restricted until June. Social distancing rules were implemented, and non-essential businesses were closed.

While the successful parts of their strategies are shared across the region, there have also been some responses that do not help in the least, but do cause serious harm. Cambodia, in particular, has adopted many of the worst elements of the PRC strategy: a completely unnecessary crackdown on human rights, restricting freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. These things are not relevant to stopping Covid. Even mass protests (if done outdoors, with some distancing and widespread use of masks) do not seem to increase spread of the virus. Stopping Covid-19 does not require taking political prisoners, arresting activists, human rights defenders, journalists or opposition party members. It does not require harassing unionists or alleging treason against political opponents. Unwarranted surveillance is not part of a good Covid-19 response. Independent investigations can occur without risking a new Covid outbreak. Cambodia can successfully control Covid without these abuses.

The right measures for stopping Covid-19 are no secret, but implementing them takes commitment. The virus spreads physically (mainly over short distances) and the more virus someone is exposed to, the more likely they are to get infected. Distance, barriers and good ventilation are the only ways to interrupt transmission. If you know exactly who has the virus, you can target your responses to reduce the cost on everyone else. But if your surveillance breaks down for any reason, you need a general strategy. In that case lockdowns and universal masking are the only options.

The world can still prosper from free trade

Trucks queue to cross the border into the US at the Otay commercial crossing point in Tijuana, Mexico, 7 July 2020 (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)
Trucks queue to cross the border into the US at the Otay commercial crossing point in Tijuana, Mexico, 7 July 2020 (Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 24 Jul 2020 09:00   0 Comments

Did anyone notice that the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA), the revised NAFTA, entered into force on 1 July? If not, do not be too concerned, as the Covid-19 crisis has probably affected that as well.

Still, this deal is (without getting too much into the weeds of whether it is more or less liberal than NAFTA) one of the few examples we have of negotiated trade liberalisation in 2020.

We are now far enough into the Covid crisis to realise that not only has the world changed, but also some of the concepts and structures which have underpinned global stability since the end of the Second World War are seriously weakened.

Look at global trade. In the period after 1945, led by the US, the international community made a commitment to expand global trade and to try to stop protectionism – which has wracked the 1930s – from becoming predominant again. Nearly 50 years later, the conclusion of the Uruguay Round brought us to a point where it seemed as if global trade was a given in the way the world operated.

In this obvious deadlock at the global level, regional and bilateral free trade agreements, even if a lesser substitute, are all we have.

Now, 25 years later, things look very different. This has not been caused by Covid-19. Much of the fraying of the trade rules has been happening for other reasons. But the coronavirus situation has highlighted what has happened and also made the way out of this mess much harder to see.

Covid-19 has contributed to a climate in international relations where the first reaction is to think national. What’s the phrase? All issues are global, but all politics is local.

We have seen nationalism interfere with global trade in the very things needed internationally to combat the virus. We have seen the partial dismantling of global supply chains. We have seen the move towards domestic protectionism, described as “ensuring supply”, across a range of industries.

What we have not seen is much leadership in the international community about how to get trade rules back up and running. The World Trade Organization might be flawed in some ways, but it is the only organisation with an international mandate. Work on reforms is underway, but without serious engagement from the US and China, things will limp along. The WTO currently is searching for a new director general. In these times of crisis, one would have hoped for a speedy identification of a suitable candidate who could bring some leadership to the issues. But it looks unlikely.

In this obvious deadlock at the global level, regional and bilateral free trade agreements, even if a lesser substitute, are all we have. That’s why the entry into force of the USMCA should be seen positively.

In Australia and New Zealand, we have to be thankful that the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is up and running. Trying to negotiate that now would be well nigh impossible. Had the US had not pulled out of it as the TPP, it would undoubtedly be stronger than it is. But it functions and delivers results. This explains interest from the United Kingdom in doing free trade agreements with Japan, Australia and New Zealand. If the UK wants to join the CPTTP, as it says it does, it cannot get there without getting bilaterals with three of CPTTP’s members.

We do know that in the Covid-affected world, the Asia-Pacific will be a significant player in the regrowth of global trade flows. In the WTO’s most recent projection, global trade in the 2019–20 year (first quarter) will drop about 18.5%. Beyond first quarter 2021, the recovery should be better in the Asia-Pacific than in the rest of the world. IMF modelling suggests that the development of further trade liberalisation and regional economic integration could lead over time to a 10% growth in Asian GDP. China looks on present indications to recover from its lowest annual growth rate in over 40 years.

China is not, of course, a member of the CTTP. It is leading the negotiation of its own version of a regional economic integration model, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.  Participating countries are due to ratify this agreement at the end of this year, but the withdrawal of India from the process late last year has reduced the scope of RCEP significantly. In the current tense climate between Delhi and Beijing, Indian reintegration looks very unlikely.

Still, if ratification and entry into force go ahead, the region will have two similar trade agreements, neither of which the US plays a role in. This is, quite frankly, a tragedy – not only strategically, but also because the US economy is a major participant in Asia-Pacific economic development. China gains from this absence.

In the meantime, the European Union and the UK, which would be interested in developing their trade relations with the region, are struggling with the damage caused by Covid-19 and post-Brexit relations. So not much to expect there.

Trade negotiators must think that theirs is an unhappy lot. But they keep trying. The latest effort, which may get somewhere – including with the US –  is the Digital Economic Partnership Agreement launched by Singapore, Chile and New Zealand. Trying to establish a framework in the digital era, the agreement touches on such things as artificial intelligence, data sharing and protection, and digital innovation. It deserves success.

Philippines government driving jeepneys off the road

A policeman inspects a jeepney at a checkpoint in Manila, 15 March 2020 (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
A policeman inspects a jeepney at a checkpoint in Manila, 15 March 2020 (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 13 Jul 2020 10:00   0 Comments

After almost four months of lockdown measures due to Covid-19, the Philippines government in June eased restrictions for the majority of the country. But even as public transport systems slowly got back to running, something was missing: the distinctive jeepneys, still banned from plying their trade.

On June 24, Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board Chief Martin Delgra announced that “traditional jeepneys” would be allowed on the road the following week in Metro Manila, where the majority of jeepneys are used. Two days later, however, the office of President Rodrigo Duterte backpedalled, stating that only “roadworthy” jeepneys – the qualifier unclear – would be accepted.

So far, only 49 jeepney routes out of more than 900 existing ones have been allowed to reopen in Metro Manila. That’s roughly 8% of 74,000 jeepneys back on the streets. And without any reliable source of income for months, packs of jeepney drivers can still be seen begging on the streets and voicing their calls to bring back their livelihoods.

The jeepney is an icon of Philippine roads, breaking the sameness of cars and buses with over-the-top decals and a long, open-air passenger area. More importantly, it serves as the cheapest and most accessible form of transportation for the commuting public. Each vehicle carries up to 20 passengers, charging just 16 US cents for a 5-kilometre trip. But these mechanical mammoths – dubbed the “Hari ng Kalsada”, or King of the Road – have been targeted by the government’s “modernisation program” since 2017.

Despite a denial of pushing for a phase-out, the state backing of “modern jeepneys” and actively preventing the homecoming of the familiar King of the Road tells a different story.

Headed by the Department of Transportation (DOTr), the plan is premised on replacing many jeepneys running on old and rundown engines with new, greener models. Since the inception of the plan, Philippine officials have encountered regular criticism from transport and commuter groups calling the move “anti-poor” and a “corporate capture”. 

One of the country’s biggest transport groups, Piston, is a vocal opponent of the program. While not against the modernisation plan per se, they remain critical of the provisions that insist jeepney drivers and owners cover the costs of the program’s requirements – including engine replacement. According to the group, prices of replacement units start at more than US$30,000 (A$43,000). That’s a tall order. A single unit owner or driver’s capital stands at around $3,800 to $7,690, going by industry standards. Piston estimates that some 650,000 drivers and 250,000 operators are at risk of losing their jobs permanently to “profit-driven modernisation.”

Is the government using the pandemic as a springboard to fully exact their modernisation scheme?

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque attempted to allay such fears, saying that now, amid the crisis, is not the time for modernisation. In spite of those words, however, there were telltale signs of a jeepney phase-out. Most modes of transportation were operational by the end of June, to some degree. On the same day the DOTr initially announced a road reappearance of jeepneys, they also made it clear what their priorities were. Jeepneys were pegged at the bottom of the public transport ladder, due to passenger proximity and health precautions. Trains and buses were at the top, followed by coaster vans, the state-promoted “modern jeepneys” (fitted with air conditioning, new engines and Wi-Fi), motorised tricycles (in some cities) and then the “traditional” jeepneys. On the agency’s Facebook page, disparaging remarks and videos against common jeepneys have been routinely posted, while touting the modern jeepney as a vehicle for the future.

Jeepneys on the road in Manila, January 2019 (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

Independent think tank Ibon Foundation disputed the notion of jeepneys being more vulnerable to transmission of the virus as a basis for the prohibition, pointing out that jeepneys are actually at an advantage because open-air vehicles offer better ventilation.

The most blatant sign of the government preventing the comeback of jeepneys has been its treatment of the drivers themselves. Most come from low-income backgrounds and earn about US$6 to $8 per day. Drivers strapped for cash have increasingly been seen on roadsides carrying signs for spare change. Invoking physical distancing rules, the police responded with arrests. In June, six members of Piston were jailed after protesting the government’s forced jeepney phase-out and demanding aid. They were charged with holding a mass gathering in violation of quarantine. Ironically, upon their release, tests revealed that two of the detained had contracted the disease while incarcerated.

With reports of ailing and starving families of jeepney drivers rampant, support through food and cash donations poured in from various corners of civil society and the general public. Towards the end of June, however, some groups engaged in the relief effort alleged harassment and threats of arrest by the police. On 27 June, a solidarity day for jeepney drivers was held, even while maintaining distancing. Food packages were collected at various sites in the city, and others used the occasion to protest the criminalisation of drivers. Police were deployed around the city and were reportedly intimidating participants.

Despite a denial of pushing for a phase-out, the state backing of “modern jeepneys” and actively preventing the homecoming of the familiar King of the Road – through both policy and police harassment – tells a different story. The fight for survival amid the pandemic is not over. But while everyone reels from the global repercussions, the administration of Rodrigo Duterte looks eager to use it as an opportunity to drive the last nail into the jeepney’s coffin.

The cost of conspiracy in muddling public health messages

A team of “door knockers” offer Covid-19 tests in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
A team of “door knockers” offer Covid-19 tests in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
Published 6 Jul 2020 13:30   3 Comments

A spike in coronavirus cases across Melbourne has seen local hotspot suburbs largely locked down and some 3000 people in public housing towers prevented from leaving home at all. But the sharp reminder that “This is not over” which now flashes on freeway signs across Australia’s second largest city has been accompanied by evidence of another disturbing problem during the pandemic – the cost of conspiracy theories in muddling public health messages.

The Victorian government has been on a testing blitz in a bid to contain the virus, with almost 200,000 tests conducted in the past week. Yet some 10,000 people refused a test. Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said some had declined believing that coronavirus was a conspiracy, with the effects overstated, or simply with a misguided faith that it would not affect them.

Some misunderstanding should be expected. After all, this is still a new virus scientists are grappling to understand, and symptoms range from barely noticeable to deadly. That local medical systems have coped better than had been feared in the early stages of the pandemic might also foster some complacency.

An unlikely, awkward mix of fringe groups has seemingly become greater and more influential than the sum of its parts.

But misinformation and disinformation is proving a challenge, even for Australia, with a trusted public broadcaster and a robust democracy. None of this is helped by world leaders whose countries have endured the highest rates of infection and deaths have written off the virus as a minor illness or even a hoax. And news sources are varied. More Americans, for example, now get their news from social media than from print newspapers, and ongoing closures of newsrooms may drive individuals to online sources without similar editorial standards which allow for the greater sharing of unchecked messaging.

This challenge is linked to a change in Australia’s extremist threat environment, which has been dominated by Islamist violent extremism in recent years. ASIO’s annual threat assessment released in February outlined the threat of right-wing extremism as “real and growing”. A June update revealed that right-wing extremist investigations now make up a third of ASIO’s domestic caseload, with a warning that far-right groups are using Covid-19 as a cover to push ideologies and recruit. The potency of this mix of beliefs was manifested in rallies around Australia in May, with protesters calling Covid-19 a scam and protesting against vaccines, pharmaceutical companies, fluoride and 5G, which has been falsely claimed as a cause of Covid-19 with tenacity on social media.

This unlikely, awkward mix of fringe groups has seemingly become greater and more influential than the sum of its parts. Numbers remain small, but not inconsequential. Data demonstrates that the virus can only be controlled when 8 out of 10 people adhere to social distancing measures, yet a small, concentrated number of people who do not could have a significant effect on this virus’ R (reproduction) number. The lockdown of nine public housing towers in Melbourne over the weekend was justified by health authorities on grounds that even a small number of infections unchecked poses an unacceptable risk.

Public housing towers in Melbourne: Nine such towers have been put into hard lockdown during a spike in Covid-19 cases (David Jackmanson/Flickr)

This indirect, seemingly non-deliberate threat to public health varies considerably from the traditional threats faced from extremist groups. However, disinformation as a threat to democracy remains a concern. There was one case of an attempt to use Covid-19 disinformation to influence this weekend’s federal by-election in Eden-Monaro, with the Australian Federal Police charging one Sydney man who orchestrated spam emails falsely linking Labor candidate Kirsty McBain to the coronavirus pandemic.

Activities to counter disinformation are taking place at the federal level. A new taskforce has been established within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to counter disinformation, with a focus on authoritarian states using disinformation to sow fear and division in democracies. This threat was reiterated in Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, which highlighted better preparation to respond to “grey zone” activities in the Indo-Pacific, including disinformation. The Australian government has been working with the tech sector to counter the prevalence of hate speech, extremist content and misinformation online.

But even with this public-private sector commitment solidified in the Christchurch Call, this strategy has been acknowledged as a game of whack-a-mole with more material ready to appear and influence as soon as it can be taken down. To further complicate matters, the Eden-Monaro case demonstrates the risk of misinformation being spread by local individuals instead of authoritarian states.

The debate as to where responsibility for online disinformation lies is an ongoing one. However, a new development may force the hands of social media companies, whose platforms allow for the greatest dissemination and amplification of conspiracy theories and disinformation in an increasingly social media-connected world. Stop Hate For Profit is an American private sector–led campaign to cancel advertising on Facebook in response to allegations of allowing incitement to violence amid the Black Lives Matter protests. Organisers’ demands include human rather than automated responses to hateful material, including creating an internal mechanism to automatically flag hateful content for human review and enabling individuals facing hate and harassment to connect with live employees. Facebook receives 98% of revenue – nearly $70 billion in 2019 – from advertising. If this campaign succeeds in forcing social media companies to better prevent disinformation on racial inequality, there may be potential to also counter disinformation on Covid-19, given this pandemic’s devastating social and economic impacts.

Southeast Asian democracies in declining health amid Covid-19

Protesters socially distanced during a demonstration against a new anti-terrorism bill in the Philippines, Quezon City, 12 June 2020 (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)
Protesters socially distanced during a demonstration against a new anti-terrorism bill in the Philippines, Quezon City, 12 June 2020 (Ezra Acayan/Getty Images)
Published 3 Jul 2020 09:00   0 Comments

The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting democracies in the Asia-Pacific region in ways that demand Australian attention.

The ability to weather a crisis of this magnitude depends upon partnerships and collaboration – economic, social and political – with key countries in the region. These partnerships are more difficult when democracy hangs in the balance.

Before the pandemic, many observers discussed and debated the illiberal turn in Southeast Asia. So while it is not the primary cause of illiberalism and the expansion of arbitrary power, Covid-19 will exacerbate this trend.

The shift was already evident in the crackdowns on political opposition in Cambodia, the use of constitutional reform to consolidate military influence in the civilian government in Thailand, and the increasing violence and illiberalism of President Duterte’s government.

The brightest example of democracy in the region, Indonesia, has in recent years begun to lose its democratic credibility. There were growing concerns that despite President Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) winning a second term, the government was compromising on the hard-won progress of democracy and accountability.

Government critics were targeted with charges of treason. The powers of the Anti-Corruption Commission were compromised. And Prabowo Subianto, the Jokowi's presidential rival, was welcomed into the cabinet. There was no doubt that pre–Covid-19, democracy was under threat.

In terms of the use – and abuse – of government power, Covid-19 is not such a new world for people in many parts of Southeast Asia. But Covid-19 will have a long-term impact on the health of democracy in the region.

In January 2020, Thailand identified the first case of Covid-19 outside China. Singapore, despite acting fast, now has the highest number of cases, exposing the vulnerabilities of its low-paid 1.5 million migrant workers.

Indonesia has the highest number of deaths, with government denial and confusion leading to an alarmingly high number of deaths of doctors and nurses. There have been some successes, with Vietnam the first country in the region to open up again after restrictive measures.

There are four trends we can see in the ways governments in Southeast Asia have responded to Covid-19.

First, as in many other parts of the world, government power has been used at the expense of human rights. More than just lockdowns and curfews, citizens have been targeted with criminal charges for criticising the government’s handling of the crisis.

Civil and political rights have become victims of Covid-19. Journalists have been arrested for criticising government responses to the pandemic in Indonesia. In Myanmar, journalists interviewing the Arakan Army, now branded a terrorist organisation, have been targets of criminal sanctions.

The second trend is the increasing role of the military and police, with Covid-19 creating opportunities for the expansion of military power and security measures. In Myanmar, a Covid-19 committee with both civilian and military representatives has been formed to address the health crisis, which blurs the line between civilian and military authority.

The role of the military is also evident in other parts of the region. In Indonesia, many the civilian authorities in high-level positions in the health sector who are leading the pandemic response are former military officers.

The third trend is that, unlike other parts of the world, the courts are less active – or absent altogether – as a check and balance on executive power. There are some exceptions; the challenge to the president’s decree on economic stimulus in Indonesia’s Constitutional Court is one example. Activists fear that that decree is unconstitutional because it grants immunity to government officials involved, raising corruption fears.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong arrives for nomination day ahead of the 10 July Singapore general election, 30 June 2020 (Ore Huiying/Getty Images)

Across Southeast Asia, the courts have more often been used to enforce government power in arbitrary ways that exacerbate social inequalities, such as the debate in Myanmar over different penalties given to Buddhists as opposed to minority Christians or Muslims found to be in breach of Covid-19 restrictions.

The final trend is that armed conflict has continued, for the most part. Conflict persists in the southern Philippines and in southern Thailand, and across Myanmar’s border regions, particularly in Rakhine and Chin states.

The call by the UN Secretary-General for a global ceasefire, urging all parties to conflict to focus instead on combating Covid-19, has largely gone unheeded in Southeast Asia. In May, the military in Myanmar finally declared a partial ceasefire, but conveniently created an exception for areas where the fighting is worst.

In terms of the use – and abuse – of government power, Covid-19 is not such a new world for people in many parts of Southeast Asia. The expansion of government power is a concern, but the declining health of democracy in the region was not caused by Covid-19, although it will exacerbate this illiberal turn.

Australia’s ability to pull through in economic and social terms depends upon maintaining strong connections with the region. This crisis of democracy presents a serious challenge, and Australia must support those in the region working to reverse the decline.

COVIDcast: Foreign Minister Joseph Wu on Taiwan’s place in the world

Published 19 Jun 2020 10:30   0 Comments

In this episode of COVIDcast, Natasha Kassam, Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute, sat down with Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Joseph Wu. Wu was appointed Foreign Minister by President Tsai Ing-wen on 26 February 2018. He was previously the head of the National Security Council, and the Chief Representative in the United States as the head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington DC.

Taiwan, a thriving democracy of 24 million people, is often seen as a proxy for both the United States and China’s ambitions for the Asia-Pacific region. But lately, Taiwan has been making headlines for its success in the Covid-19 pandemic. In normal times, there are 500 direct flights and around 180,000 trips between Taiwan and China each week. Despite this proximity, Taiwan has contained the virus to around 400 cases, only seven fatalities and no community transmission for more than two months.

Wu says China has increased military pressure on Taiwan during the pandemic. With many other countries preoccupied in dealing with the pandemic, China may feel it has a freer hand in dealing with Taiwan. The military pressure also serves to divert domestic attention in China onto Taiwan, at a time where the economic slowdown in China may be driving social discontent.


In addition to longstanding economic and military pressure, Wu says, China has been increasing influence operations against Taiwan in the last two years. Whether we refer to these operations as “sharp power” or influence operations, China is pressuring businesses, thinktanks and universities to treat Taiwan as a part of China.

Wu says Hong Kong and Taiwan are two outposts of democracy. If the Chinese government can whittle away Hong Kong’s freedoms and human rights, then Taiwan will be next.

China has also been seeking to pressure Taiwan in other ways, excluding it from the World Health Organisation, and poaching diplomatic partners such as Solomon Islands and Kiribati in the Pacific. By making donations to other countries and sharing Taiwan’s experience in fighting Covid-19, Taiwan hoped to win more international friendship. Many countries that had never expressed public support for Taiwan had spoken up at the World Health Assembly in May.

Wu says Hong Kong and Taiwan are two outposts of democracy. If the Chinese government can whittle away Hong Kong’s freedoms and human rights, then Taiwan will be next.


COVIDcast is a podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. To stay up to date with the latest episodes of COVIDcast, subscribe to Lowy Institute Audio on Apple Podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify or SoundCloud.

Economic diplomacy: Positive globalism and American exceptionalism

Australia’s Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham at the National Press Club, 17 June 2020 in Canberra (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Australia’s Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham at the National Press Club, 17 June 2020 in Canberra (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Published 18 Jun 2020 13:30   0 Comments


There was one phrase that would have neatly rounded out the interesting complementary speeches delivered by Australia’s two key international affairs ministers this week: positive globalism.

Here’s Trade Minister Simon Birmingham on Wednesday:

I know the WTO and its processes can seem arcane, but having an effective rule book is the cornerstone of a functional, rules-based system. It couldn’t be more essential for a country like Australia.

And here’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne on Tuesday:

Australia’s interests are not served by stepping away and leaving others to shape global order for us. Isolationism would also cut us off from the world on which we are so dependent for our own security and prosperity in the world's most dynamic region.

These are welcome but essentially unremarkable comments from ministers running a middle-power, export-oriented, foreign investment–dependent country with a proud track record of international engagement and citizens serving in numerous global jobs.

Except for the way their upbeat attitude to global engagement is quite a change of pace from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Trumpian swipe at “negative globalism” in his Lowy Lecture last October. That was before the bushfires, Covid-19 and China’s growing intransigence all in different ways underlined the value of Australia participating in a wide range of international institutions, despite the diplomatic trade-offs sometimes required.

While Morrison suggested some of these bodies were running out of control and threatening democratic nations, Payne is now saying that the negative globalism audit ordered by her boss has found that multilateral organisations are “vital” to Australia’s interests. So, it is perhaps not surprising that she sugar-coated the not-unexpected shift back to middle-power reality by remarkably suggesting that Morrison’s speech was trying to prepare Australia for an unforeseen pandemic. 

Economic distancing

Asia is converging into a more coherent economic entity, rather than taking sides in the US-China power struggle, according to new modelling of the region’s new trade zones – the revamped Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP).

Indeed, the Peterson Institute for International Economics modelling highlights how the two zones are creating a more traditional East Asian economic sphere at odds with the newer Indo-Pacific security framework, mainly because the US and India have absented themselves.

Trade deal modellers Michael Plummer and Peter Petri characterise the US and India’s stance on agreements which will raise the annual output of their members by US$147 billion (CPTPP) and $US186 billion (RCEP) by 2030 as “economic distancing”. India, in particular, is projected to lose US$6 billion from not joining RCEP, compared with gaining US$60 billion if it had joined:

Despite a history of political tensions in East Asia, these trends will deepen economic integration among China, Japan, and Korea, building on their already substantial production networks. The losers will be the United States and India, in economics as well as strategic influence in the region.

At odds with much of the post-Covid strategic debate, they further state, “By lowering East Asian trade costs, RCEP will accelerate the decoupling of the East Asian and US economies, arguably the most productive regional partnership in economic history.”

The modelling also finds that the two Asian trade agreements will broadly offset the US$301 billion in annual lost global income by 2030 from the US-China trade war, but not the losses to the US and China themselves.

Birmingham is due to join an online meeting of trade ministers to maintain the momentum towards the signing of RCEP in November.

But while the pan-Asian agreement is now a standard feature of the government’s growth and diversity rhetoric, the Plummer/Petri modelling does not offer much joy to Australia, due to the fact it already has trade agreements with all other 14 participants, now that India is out.

The modelling suggests it will only increase Australian real national income by a negligible US$1 billion a year by 2030, compared with US$85 billion for China and US$48 billion for Japan.

Currency reserve

When the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released its Asian regional outlook in April, Asia-Pacific director Changyong Rhee surprisingly emphasised the role of the US dollar in the region, pointing out it had actually risen in significance since the last financial crisis in 2008.

It was a nod to the way the currency’s global reserve status remains one of the most significant hard- and soft-power assets the US has – especially at a time when even the military has lost some stature by being drawn into the domestic debate around the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

But what is more striking since April has been the roll call of high-profile US commentators worrying about the future of the currency amid the Trump administration’s assault on globalisation.

In Foreign Affairs, former Treasury secretary Hank Paulson says the enduring dominance of the dollar is remarkable, given the US economy’s relative decline over the past 50 years. But while he says the currency may retain its role, he warns:

The dollar’s status will be tested by Washington’s ability to weather the Covid-19 storm and emerge with economic policies that allow the country, over time, to manage its national debt and curb its structural fiscal deficit.

Currencies set the equilibrium between domestic economic fundamentals and foreign perceptions of a nation's strength or weakness, according to former Morgan Stanley Asia chairman Stephen Roach on Bloomberg, who predicts a US dollar slump driven by Trump’s international economic policies and a savings decline due to the pandemic recession. He says:

Like Covid-19 and racial turmoil, the fall of the almighty dollar will cast global economic leadership of a savings-short US economy in a very harsh light. Exorbitant privilege needs to be earned, not taken for granted.

But this week at Project Syndicate, former IMF economist Kenneth Rogoff took the argument further, suggesting that an underappreciated aspect of Trump’s reshoring and deglobalisation campaign would be a decline in demand for US-dollar assets just when the country has a rising budget deficit to finance. He says:

Even if the US turns a blind eye to deglobalisation’s effects on the rest of the world, it should be remembered that the abundant demand for dollar assets depends heavily on the vast trade and financial system that some American politicians aim to shrink.

Meanwhile, as the Trump administration has dithered domestically and meddled globally over Covid-19, the single most significant US pandemic mitigation action was the Federal Reserve’s swift extension of currency swap lines to more than a dozen other central banks to calm financial markets in March.

So the future of the dollar is going to rely on continued global trust in American exceptionalism, amid growing global distrust of the politicians who manage the country.

Cambodia: Caught in the middle

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, 11 May 2020 (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, 11 May 2020 (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 17 Jun 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Even as it grapples with the economic fallout of Covid-19, Cambodia has a China problem. The perception of Prime Minister Hun Sen as a stooge for Beijing became entrenched long before the coronavirus outbreak – but it was left unexplained. However, as the virus is gradually brought under control, this idea of Cambodia circling ever more tightly in China’s orbit and descending into dictatorship threatens the country’s economic recovery.

The supposed China connection has been elevated since The Wall Street Journal reported in July 2019 that Cambodia was helping China realise its “string of pearls” strategy by allowing Beijing military access to a naval base in Sihanoukville. It has kept resurfacing, including with speculation that other nearby ports are under construction.

The allegations that Cambodia is likely allowing China to build dual-use ports capable of accommodating Beijing’s military aircraft and warships are not a welcome sign. Such speculations lack concrete evidence and have been vehemently denied by the Cambodian government, but they have serious repercussions for Cambodia.

They not only further undermine Cambodia's image on the regional and international stage, but they also potentially place the country in the centre of strategic competition for dominance in the Asia-Pacific between China and the US.

Tilting towards China – or just appearing to be – at the expense of US relations could spell disaster for the country and its people in the long run.

In recent years, Cambodia and the US have experienced growing mutual strategic mistrust. While the US is suspicious of Cambodia’s increasing friendliness towards China, Cambodia is wary of the US push for regime change in Phnom Penh. However, Hun Sen was assured last year in a letter from US President Trump that “the United States respects the sovereign will of Cambodian people and we do not seek regime change”.

The cost of this strategic mistrust is measurable. Despite relative success in controlling the spread of Covid-19, Cambodia needs effective post-pandemic recovery strategies and policy responses to build back better economically. The World Bank has predicted a sharp decline in Cambodia's 2020 GDP growth, potentially registering a negative growth rate of between -1 and -2.9% – the slowest growth since 1994.

The situation is dire. Cambodia’s main GDP growth drivers such as the garment, tourism and construction industries are faltering. Almost 200 garment factories in the country have suspended operations, and around 170 companies in the tourism industry have been shut down.

Cambodia will need broad international ties to support its recovery. While the pandemic is still severely impairing global supply chains, and the tourism industry still hobbled by international travel bans and other restrictions, such links will need to be re-established.

Thus, Cambodia cannot afford to be branded a China lackey. To address the strategic mistrust between Phnom Penh and Washington, the US needs to engage Cambodia in ways that are neither confrontational nor undermining towards the Kingdom. Although efforts have been made and positive developments have emerged in recent months, relations are still strained.

While Cambodia continues to conduct foreign policy guided by economic pragmatism, it needs to strike a fine balance in its relations with the superpowers. Tilting towards China – or just appearing to be – at the expense of US relations could spell disaster for the country and its people in the long run.

Garment workers in a clothing factory in 2016. The garment industry accounts for nearly 16% of Cambodia’s annual GDP and over 80% of exports (Marcel Crozet/ILO/Flickr)

Engaging all partners, the US and its allies in particular, is therefore vital to Cambodia’s foreign policy and sustainable development. Its inclusive foreign policy motto, “Reforming at home and making friends abroad based on the spirit of independence,” is a great strategic vision, but realising it is not so easy.

Meanwhile, Cambodia needs to address domestic challenges such as corruption, human rights violations, social injustice and environmental issues in order to sustain bilateral aid.

One of its post-pandemic priorities will be to resolve its differences with the European Union – Cambodia’s largest export market – over concerns surrounding the partial withdrawal of the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade scheme Cambodia has enjoyed since 2001. Although Cambodia can still export to Europe even without the EBA scheme, the loss of trade privileges would have a negative impact on the garment industry, which accounts for over 80% of Cambodia’s exports.

Cambodia also has to recalibrate the trajectory of its political development, widely perceived as edging towards authoritarianism. Although it favours political elites, staunch government supporters and particularly Prime Minister Hun Sen (who has been in power for more than three decades), it may not reflect the interests of around 3 million Cambodians who voted for the opposition party in the commune elections in 2017.

The country’s perceived descent into authoritarianism clearly does not align with international efforts invested since the 1990s to assist Cambodia in upholding democratic values and practices. A reconsideration of the country's overall political trend and increasing repression of dissent are therefore urgently needed.

At the same time, as it works to deal with the many social and economic challenges caused by Covid-19, the country’s strategies for economic recovery need a vision that goes beyond the economic sphere.

The geopolitical consequences of a pandemic

Pro-democracy activists at a rally in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong, 12 June 2020 (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)
Pro-democracy activists at a rally in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong, 12 June 2020 (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 16 Jun 2020 06:00   0 Comments

The global system is in a state of flux. China’s renewed territorial assertions and growing military power continue to pose challenges to regional peace and stability. US-Russia relations have plummeted into a downward spiral. We have passed through a crisis on the Korean Peninsula that has had a deep impact on the security situation in Northeast Asia, and which has only recently moved from a phase of brinkmanship to intermittent dialogue. Tensions are brewing around Iran’s nuclear program.

And virtually every country is confronting the Covid-19 pandemic.

The world economy had barely strengthened, as lingering fragilities related to the global financial crisis subsided. In 2019, global GDP growth was a modest 2.9%.  Rising unemployment, plummeting GDPs and growing inequalities within countries and intra-country disparities in growth are increasing the potential for social instability across the globe. The demonstrations against racial discrimination and police brutality in the US have been fuelled in part by the underlying economic pain of thousands of jobs lost to the pandemic. The specter of the US-China trade war, rising protectionism and a pushback against globalisation was already a real danger before the pandemic, but it has now been exacerbated by the downward spiral in Sino-US relations, as the US blames China for a lack of transparency in the origins and handling of the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a body blow to the global economy.

After the Global Financial Crisis (2007–08), there was a relative decline in US power, and China made the most of a period of strategic opportunity by occupying the space vacated by a US preoccupied with the domestic economic crisis and its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. China has made a similar judgment in the midst of the current pandemic – that major powers are distracted and now is the time to advance its territorial agenda. This explains its recent assertions in the South and East China seas and along the Sino-Indian border. As on previous occasions, this has been accompanied by attempts at soft coercion through statements made by Chinese spokespersons and official media.

Global connections are fraying (SoulRider.222/Flickr)


A once-in-a-century pandemic has the potential to unleash an epochal geopolitical churn. There are major risks from potential conflict triggered by tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran or from a conflict of interests between the US and Russia in the Middle East. Iran might exacerbate existing tensions by moving perceptibly closer towards a nuclear weapons capability or by activating its proxies as a response to extreme stress from the sanctions and the pandemic. Such a conflict might draw in the US and Israel, leading to a wider conflagration.

As the demonstrations in the US are echoed other countries, there will likely be different outcomes, depending upon the nature of the political system in place. Democracies are less likely to use force and more likely to introduce changes to address underlying causes. Authoritarian regimes, which suffer from a crisis of legitimacy, are more likely to use excessive force and less likely to address underlying issues, out of a fear of unleashing a chain of events they would be unable to control.

The US, its allies and its partners need to seriously examine economic, political and security options to deal with an opaque, assertive and territorially unsatiated China, with the understanding that China is the problem and cannot be part of the solution.

The pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are a case in point. China has armed itself with a new national security law, and should the popular movement gain renewed momentum, it is likely to use force to suppress the movement. In the present polarised climate, that will inevitably lead to new US and Western sanctions, including stricter export controls targeting sensitive technology exports to China. This, in turn, would trigger another round of exodus of value chains out of China, accelerating the decoupling of the US and Chinese economies.

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong could spread to other regions of China – particularly those inhabited by minorities oppressed by the Chinese government. The gut instinct of Beijing would be to come down hard on these protests. It is tempting to speculate whether, in the face of China’s increasing isolation, a reformer could emerge from the ranks to guide the country towards a more democratic future. A democratic China would be less likely to threaten the territorial integrity of other countries, and could evolve towards a genuinely federal structure with greater autonomy for minority areas like Tibet and Xinjiang. It may be less likely to pursue a collusive agenda with Pakistan and North Korea. In fact, bereft of economic support from China, those countries may actually be socialised into the mainstream of the international community.

An alternative geopolitical future for China and the world could be repression at home, increasing isolation in the global community and the pursuit of territorial assertions and proxy wars in order to establish itself as the Asian hegemon in a bipolar US-China contest.

The persisent inconsistencies and a lack of an overarching strategic framework in the Trump administration policy towards Asia undermines the prospects for stability and security in the region. The US, its allies and its partners need to seriously examine economic, political and security options to deal with an opaque, assertive and territorially unsatiated China, with the understanding that China is the problem and cannot be part of the solution. The US must reverse the downward spiral in US-Russia relations and desist from pushing Russia further into the Chinese embrace.

In the Middle East, the focus must be on diplomacy and negotiation; this is not the opportune moment to stoke the flames of conflict when the focus should be on containing the Chinese threat. The US has to lift itself out of its current isolationist mood and show leadership on global issues, including the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and the world economy.

Restoring faith in multilateralism will require reinventing global governance institutions. And restoring public trust in leadership will mean urgently addressing the pressing social and economic issues driving popular protests.

Kashmir Covid response sparks fear and suspicion

Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard in central Srinagar, 10 June 2020 (Tauseef Mustafa/AFP via Getty Images)
Indian paramilitary soldiers stand guard in central Srinagar, 10 June 2020 (Tauseef Mustafa/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 15 Jun 2020 11:30   0 Comments

India’s high-handedness in Kashmir amid a global pandemic has further exacerbated a tense situation in the restive valley. The latest causality of harsh policies has been people, mostly students, locked up in quarantine centres across Kashmir.

In March, when Kashmiri students studying outside India started landing back in Kashmir because of Covid-19 shutdowns, many of them tried to avoid admission to compulsory quarantine facilities for a 15-day stay. The thought of being held under the strict watch of state officials had students bordering on panic, and led parents and guardians, waiting outside the airport building, to stage a chain of protests against the ruling.

This fear had obvious roots. India’s handling of Kashmir has long been questioned, particularly since 1987, when it rigged a local election, paving the way for a secessionist movement in Kashmir. Today, India rules Kashmir through the presence of nearly a million armed troops, by some estimates. Conflict in Kashmir has cost at least 40,000 lives since a separatist insurgency ignited in the 1980s, with thousands of disappearances associated with Indian security forces. There are also the less visible but debilitating costs of psychological trauma and other lifelong disabilities.

Going public has become a necessary way to pressure local officials, who would otherwise almost always turn a blind to the daily tribulations.

India’s response to dissent in Kashmir has instilled trenchant suspicion in the local population. This helps explain why people worry about the treatment of their children at the hands of the administration, even in a public health crisis. Such suspicions evoked memories of last August, when India tortured and incarcerated thousands of Kashmiri children after revoking Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian constitution, which guaranteed the semi-autonomous status of the Muslim-majority state. It also imposed an indefinite civilian curfew and telecommunications and internet blockade which lasted for months. High-speed internet services still remain curtailed.

Yet in the controversy over quarantine, mobile screens buzzed with news from students and their relatives who voiced their concerns on various social media platforms. Going public has become a necessary way to pressure local officials, who would otherwise almost always turn a blind to the daily tribulations.

In one such post, a girl reported state security taking a group of students to a camp operated Border Security Force – the border guard organisation of India – where the students were allegedly beaten up by the police for refusing to go inside.

“Who takes students especially girls there?” she asked on Twitter, alluding to past instances when Indian soldiers were charged with rape allegations and other hostile misconduct against Kashmiri women. The students were later shifted to a nearby hotel.

In another incident, a relative of a female medical student who had returned from Bangladesh criticised the administration for carrying students to a makeshift quarantine center in a military van instead of an ambulance. “My sister-in-law was in there and she begged me to drive by its side,” he wrote on Twitter.

Such exposés kept popping up.

Recently, a news report revealed an incident in which a teenage girl was allegedly attacked by a police constable in a quarantine facility in Kashmir’s Chadoora district. Prior to that, a state official was seen threatening a female student for protesting the uncleanliness of quarantine centres.

Others allege that police officials would visit quarantine centres and angrily bang on the doors in the Rajbagh area of Srinagar, annoyed at the repeated complaints by students about the unhealthy conditions they were forced to stay in.

J&K police have also started intimidating doctors and other health workers and stopping them from visiting hospitals to treat Covid-19 and other ailing patients. A doctor was even detained for resisting aggressive police officials. “Let your patients and the hospital go to hell,” were the words used by a senior police officer to a doctor when he had begged to be able to get to his hospital where he was on call.

While the world fights a deadly pandemic, Kashmir fears for the worst as India’s military occupation persists in its violence against the local population. 

North Korea may have benefited from the pandemic after all

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seen on televisions in South Korea on 2 May (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seen on televisions in South Korea on 2 May (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Published 11 Jun 2020 16:30   0 Comments

Recent news reports about North Korea reopening its schools and easing its restrictions on border trade with China after more than four months of coronavirus-related closure indicate that normalcy is returning to the Hermit Kingdom.

While it would be far-fetched to fairly evaluate Pyongyang’s response to the pandemic due to a lack of credible statistics on the number of infections, experts generally agree that North Korea has succeeded in controlling the virus thanks to its police-state institutions and early coping mechanisms. North Korea is a poor country, but when it comes to pandemic control, time may be more important than resources. Cheap measures such as heavy-handed contact tracing and quarantine can prevent community spread and ease the burden on the decrepit healthcare infrastructure.

As the dust settles, it is important to assess whether North Korea gains or loses from the pandemic. Did the pandemic put North Korea in a more advantageous position compared to the negotiation deadlock in the latter half of 2019? And can Pyongyang exploit the pandemic to further its ends?

North Korea may have economically suffered, but its time-buying strategy has received a boost thanks to the pandemic. China and South Korea’s support for North Korea during times of hardship, and the neglect of the North Korea issue by the United States are what Pyongyang needs to consolidate its gains after two years of charm offensive.

Students attend a mass gathering denouncing “defectors from the north” at the Pyongyang Youth Park Open-Air Theatre on 6 June  (Kim Won-jin/AFP via Getty Images)


The pandemic indeed has made life much harder not only for ordinary North Koreans but also for the central government. The country’s decision to close the border with China has done more damage to its economy than international sanctions. North Korea’s exports to China in March fell 96% compared to March 2019 to just $616,000, according to one report. Pyongyang residents experienced a shortage of foreign consumer goods and a huge increase in prices of food and household appliances. Moreover, the country’s infant tourism industry faced delay and an uncertain future, as North Korea cannot count on foreign tourists to revive its economy when a Covid-19 vaccine is still unavailable. The economy is so dire that Pyongyang has issued government bonds and resorted to coercion to shore up state finances.

However, North Korea’s temporary economic fall can be offset by luring financial support from China and South Korea.

On the military front, North Korea did not let the pandemic slow its missile progress and used the time to develop its nuclear capability.

China’s dilemma in international sanctions on North Korea is a fear that strict enforcement could lead North Korea to collapse. The pandemic allowed Beijing to cooperate with Pyongyang to help fight Covid-19 and “provide assistance” to the country without the negativity associated with breaking sanctions. China has been vocal about lifting sanctions on North Korea on the grounds that such measures hurt ordinary North Koreans. North Korea and China have also been preparing to expand cross-border exchange as pandemic border control eases.

South Korea is also interested in sanctions relief for the North and North-South healthcare cooperation. As South Korea President Moon Jae-in no longer faces any electoral battles until the end of his term, Moon may strongly push for inter-Korean exchanges independently of the United States and lay the groundwork for his successor to continue the détente. For instance, Seoul can call for the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex to produce facemasks and personal protection equipment. Cross-border railway reconnection projects can also be an area of cooperation, for Seoul can send humanitarian assistance to the North via ground transportation and make a stronger case to bypass the United Nations Command, which controls the inter-Korean border and has dictated the pace of Moon’s peace initiatives.

On the military front, North Korea did not let the pandemic slow its missile progress and used the time to develop its nuclear capability. In March, North Korea conducted four short-range missile tests, one more than the first quarter of 2017 before an improvement in inter-Korean and North Korea-United States relations. A report of the country’s Worker’s Party Plenary meeting in January 2020 hinted at a “new strategic weapon”, which could denote solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) or a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). North Korea chairman Kim Jong-un’s recent vow to increase the “nuclear war deterrence” at a Central Military Commission meeting affirms North Korea’s determination to hold on to and expand its nuclear arsenal despite economic hardship.

In the months after the second summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Hanoi, North Korea intentionally avoided talking to the United States in order to extract concessions from Washington. North Korea’s hardline strategy was based on its time advantage, in which a delay in nuclear negotiation and an arms control agreement only increases the country’s quantity and quality of its nuclear and missile programs. Despite the strong rhetoric in 2019, Pyongyang left the negotiation track open in 2020.

Unfortunately, the poor handling of the pandemic in the US distracts Washington from nuclear negotiations, and so long as Pyongyang refrains from breaking the moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests, it is not likely that a breakthrough will be made in the second half of 2020.

The pandemic may have delayed North Korea’s economic objectives and posed financial hardship for the government, but the pandemic gives more weight to sanctions relief and buys it more time to advance its strategic weapons. Pyongyang’s charm offensive has regained China’s support, energised Moon’s push for joint economic exchanges, and stifled the US maximum pressure campaign. Pyongyang has found a silver lining in the pandemic.

China toys with a new propaganda technique: Irony

Screen shot from the “Once upon a virus” video released by China’s state news agency Xinhua
Screen shot from the “Once upon a virus” video released by China’s state news agency Xinhua
Published 11 Jun 2020 05:00   0 Comments

As the world struggles with the Covid-19 crisis, the US and China have been locked in a heated propaganda warfare over the handling of the virus. Hitting back at President Donald Trump’s claim that “China let it spread”, Chinese official media angrily accused the US of “groundless accusation” and “nefarious plotting”. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s twitter post incited an equally unsubstantiated claim that the virus was a bioweapon of the US military.

Amid this public condemnation, conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns, an unconventional animation video released by the state news agency Xinhua stood out in China’s propaganda arsenal.

Featured in Lego figures taking part in a play act, the one-and-a-half-minute video suggestively entitled “Once upon a virus” presents a series of interactions over Covid-19 between China and the US, represented by a group of terracotta warriors and the Statue of Liberty. The video opens with a mask-wearing warrior informing World Health Organisation (WHO) of a “strange pneumonia case”. The ensuing conversation takes place between the warriors, all equipped adequately with masks and hazmat suits, and the “bare” Statue of Liberty.

“We discovered a new virus”, the warriors say. “So what? It’s only a flu”, the Statue of Liberty replies. “Wear a mask”, “don’t wear a mask”, “stay at home”, “it’s violating human rights”, “build temporary hospitals”, “it’s a concentration camp” are the back and forth lines along which the debate develops.

The Statue of Liberty constantly defies whatever the warriors say and hence is portrayed as undermining the efforts of fighting the virus, while China’s advice and “achievements” are underlined. As the Statue of Liberty is too busy engaging in this war of words, her condition worsens. The video ends with her eventually wearing a mask and being attached to an intravenous drip, still blaming China and insisting that “even when we contradict ourselves, we are always correct”, to which the warriors ironically retort “That’s what I love about you Americans, your consistency”.

Three aspects of this video are important to highlight: communication strategy, symbolism of content and targeted audience. China’s sarcastic and light-hearted effort of fixing its already-damaged reputation stands in sharp contrast to the party-state’s previous approaches in conducting foreign propaganda, defined generally by charm offensive on the one hand and “fire and fury” on the other. Solemnity, dignity and formality are hailed as the rule of thumb of conducting politics in Chinese culture and are in turn reflected in propaganda materials.

China’s willingness to engage with the criticisms received sits in stark contrast with traditional propaganda approaches of denial and reaffirmations.

The party-state tends to distance itself from such political satire, reflected in one of the Global Times editorials response to South Park’s innuendo of Xinjiang’s detention of Uighurs as “knowing too little about China”. This time, however, China seems to be at ease to use some stereotyped charges against it, such as “violation of human rights” and “concentration camp”, as an irony to vindicate itself. While China presents the charges the US put forward, it does so in a way that portrays them linked to the Covid-19 policy in the US, making it easier to highlight the flaws and contradictions within both.

China’s willingness to engage with the criticisms received sits in stark contrast with traditional propaganda approaches of denial and reaffirmations of its own positions which generally paid little attention to what the interlocutor had said. The Xinhua video instead of bluntly reiterating the official position or all of governments’ arduous efforts so far, sarcastically ridiculed the US for engaging in a “blaming for blaming’s sake” game.

Markedly, China did not use more internationally renowned images such as a panda or dragon to represent itself. The choice of terracotta warriors symbolises the eternal power of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China endorsing legalism as the official state doctrine. In his lifetime, he used his military might to brutally conquer neighbouring territories; in his afterlife, the 8,000-warrior terracotta army was meant to protect his emperorship into perpetuity. Adopting this symbol, China might imply that its draconian measures of effectively containing the virus are the manifestation of the disciplined Qin’s rule under legalism; parallels with President Xi Jinping’s rule, with lifted restrictions on his mandate and characterised by a harsh clampdown on critics and an aggressive foreign policy inevitably come to mind.

The Statue of Liberty is equally symbolic. Its “liberty enlightening the world” is mocked for its reverse effect in times of crisis, implying that human lives are traded for “liberty”, and as a consequence the freest country in the world is now the worst hit by the virus. Moreover, all characters are made from Lego parts which is ironic given the company’s controversial decision back in 2016 of not fulfilling Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s order due to concern that the bricks will be used to make a political statement; in line with its apolitical stance, the company denied any involvement in the production of this video.

The video, produced in English, was not disseminated by domestic media but targeted a foreign audience. Nonetheless, it was picked up by Chinese social media, recording over 11 million views since 2 May.

We can only suspect that the state is cautiously sounding out the public’s reactions on such undertakings. This would be in line with Xi’s administration interest in combining information technology with propaganda. In 2013, a video called “How Leaders Are Made”, similar to “Once upon a virus” in style, though far less sarcastic in tone, showcased how high-profiled politicians raise to power in China and the West. The production studio “Fuxing Road” (复兴路上) remained a mystery, though some lined it back to CCP’s International Department.

For now, it remains to be seen whether China is truly turning a new creative page in its propaganda manual.

In Yemen, a deadly concoction of arms sales, conflict and Covid-19

Yemeni Houthi loyalists at a tribal gathering in Sana’a, 20 February 2020 (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
Yemeni Houthi loyalists at a tribal gathering in Sana’a, 20 February 2020 (Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)
Published 10 Jun 2020 16:30   2 Comments

In April, the UN Security Council issued a statement endorsing the UN Secretary-General’s call for a ceasefire in Yemen to better enable a response to Covid-19. The Council recognised that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen made the country “exceptionally vulnerable”, and that any further military escalation would “hinder the access of humanitarian and healthcare workers and the availability of healthcare facilities”. 

The Council is right to be concerned. Thus far, Yemen has confirmed just 469 Covid-19 infections. But testing rates are among the lowest in the world, and the fatality rate – at 24% – is one of the highest, suggesting that the real caseload is much higher. The UN Secretary General said last week that there was “every reason to believe that community transmission is already underway across the country”.

Even without Covid-19, after more than five years of war, Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The conflict has devastated the economy, destroyed civilian infrastructure and brought the provision of basic services to the brink of collapse. The health system has been particularly hard hit. Hospitals have been bombed, only half the country’s health facilities are fully functioning, power cuts are common, and items such as personal protective equipment and ventilators are in short supply. 

As concerns about the spread of Covid-19 in Yemen have escalated, arms sales have continued.

The conflict in Yemen has been fuelled by arms supplied by foreign states to the Saudi Arabian–led international coalition (or SLC), which since 2015 has been engaged in a military campaign to oust the Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest arms importer. Most of its arms come from the US, followed by the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Canada. Other SLC members Egypt and the UAE are also among the world’s leading arms importers, receiving most of their weapons from the US and France.

Since 2015, arms exports to the SLC have continued despite overwhelming evidence that the SLC has been violating human rights and international humanitarian law in Yemen. Most of the civilians killed in the conflict have been killed in SLC airstrikes, many of which have targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure – schools, houses, markets, farms, factories. Some of these attacks were carried out with weapons supplied by Western states. A report released by human rights organisations last year documented 27 “apparently unlawful Saudi/UAE-led Coalition attacks” on civilian homes, educational and health facilities, businesses and gatherings that appeared to have used weapons made in the US or UK.

The supply of arms to the SLC has prompted efforts to block arms sales through legislative and judicial processes. Last year the UK Court of Appeal ruled that the UK Government had acted illegally by exporting arms to Saudi Arabia without assessing whether the SLC had been violating international humanitarian law. In the US, Congress has repeatedly tried to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but every time has been overruled by presidential veto. The European Parliament has called for an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock (onscreen) briefs members of the Security Council during a video teleconference on the situation in Yemen, 16 April 2020 (UN Photo)

As concerns about the spread of Covid-19 in Yemen have escalated, arms sales have continued. In April, Canada lifted a moratorium on arms exports to Saudi Arabia, and in May, the US approved a possible sale of thousands of armoured vehicles to the UAE. Germany has approved US$341 million in arms sales to Egypt and $8.5 million to the UAE this year alone.

In other words, members of the Security Council have called for a ceasefire while simultaneously providing arms to enable the fighting in Yemen to continue.

This is not the only irony in the Security Council’s response to the conflict. The other is that in 2014 the Council established a sanctions regime for those found to be violating international human rights and humanitarian law. It established a Panel of Experts to review the evidence and help it decide whom to impose sanctions on. Every year since 2016, the Panel of Experts has reported to the Council that all parties to the conflict in Yemen have violated human rights and international humanitarian law, and it has recommended that sanctions be imposed against individuals from all parties. The Security Council has responded by imposing sanctions and an arms embargo against Houthi-aligned individuals, while studiously ignoring the evidence regarding the SLC’s airstrikes and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law – that is to say: the evidence from its own Panel of Experts, which it established for the specific purpose of assisting it to designate individuals and entities to be subject to sanctions.

To be clear: states such as the US, the UK, France, Canada, Germany and others who have supplied arms to the SLC have contributed to the destruction of Yemen’s infrastructure. In doing so, they have aided in the collapse of Yemen’s healthcare system, and thus increased the country’s vulnerability to Covid-19. These countries should now hold themselves responsible for enabling a response to the outbreak. This means immediately ceasing arms sales to members of the SLC, funding the humanitarian response to enable aid agencies to respond to Covid-19, and supporting a Security Council resolution that extends the existing sanctions regime to include individuals engaged in violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, from all sides of the conflict.

Climate change makes Covid-19 politics look easy

The Big Smoke: Sydney in December 2019 (Getty Images)
The Big Smoke: Sydney in December 2019 (Getty Images)
Published 10 Jun 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Covid-19 has been an extremely difficult challenge for national policymakers. If policy and politics are about managing competing interests and prioritising different constituencies, the varied national Covid-19 responses point to the acute challenges of getting this balance right.

How do we balance the economic implications of movement restrictions against the public health risks of increased infections? How do we weigh individual freedoms against community protection? And if we shut down elements of our economy, do we protect affected people and businesses? All of them? How much support should we give them? And for how long?

What the Covid-19 experience tells us is that the public and policymakers have a capacity to listen to and follow the guidance of experts.

Almost every country has answered these questions differently, with measures ranging from total lockdown to contact tracing, widespread testing to business as usual. These have seen varying degrees of success, of course, and varying degrees of public support for those measures.  Within Australia, we’ve seen consistent and robust debate about the policies enacted, including movement restrictions and the closure of schools, borders and businesses. Who would want to be a policymaker trying to get this balance right, and trying to sell it politically?

Climate change, however, makes the policy and political challenge of responding to Covid-19 – at least in Australia – look like a picnic, by comparison. In at least five ways, climate change is much tougher:

  1. With Covid-19, the public has a sense of what a worst-case scenario looks like. It makes justifying extraordinary measures a lot easier for politicians if they can, for example, point to dramatic scenes from a country hit hard by the pandemic to say, “These are people and societies much like ours, and that’s our future if we do nothing.”
    The same is more difficult to say of climate change – or at least with any degree of certainty. We can point to the devastating effects of disasters like the 2019–20 bushfires or the drought that preceded it. We know that climate change means an increase in the frequency and severity of such events. But we can’t definitively say that climate change caused these disasters – and plenty of voices in Australia contest any attempt to link them. The threat of climate change in this sense is a different one, and emergency measures are just a bit harder to sell.
  2. With Covid-19, we have a clearer idea about the effectiveness of different responses. We can see from other states – and from sophisticated modelling – what measures will lead towards what range of outcomes, and in what timeframe. The same does not apply to climate change. Ecosystem functions are far more complex, and the suite of possible measures – from mitigation to adaptation to geoengineering – make this a much more complicated policy challenge.
  3. With Covid-19, unilateral national action can work. Quickly closing off borders is actually possible, and if New Zealand’s experience is anything to go by, can be effective. With climate change, the nature of the atmosphere as a global commons obviously makes such actions impossible. We can focus on adaptative measures to try to insulate ourselves from the effects of climate change, but we can’t prevent disasters from happening in the first place. So we need mitigation, but one country can’t achieve necessary goals on its own. We need sustained international cooperation, with many states doing their part – which has proved to be elusive in practice. And if we think – or we’re led to think – that others aren’t doing their part for international response, major domestic mitigation efforts are that much harder to sell domestically.
  4. With Covid-19, we’re protecting ourselves and those closest to us. Covid-19 can immediately and directly affect us, family members and fellow citizens, which is how extraordinary policy measures can be justified and sold. Those most immediately and directly vulnerable to climate change, though, are seen as something other – they’re people in the developing world, other living creatures, or future human generations. We’re seldom encouraged to orient our moral – or political – concerns to these constituencies. Again, this makes mobilising and sustaining extraordinary measures harder than with Covid-19.
  5. A return to something approaching life as normal beyond Covid-19 seems possible. Sacrifices are politically easier to sell if it looks like a “for now” scenario, with effective measures in place and the chance of a vaccine on the horizon. That won’t be the case with climate, where we’ll likely be facing a world that has changed irrevocably.

In all these ways, climate change poses more profound challenges for policy and politics than Covid-19. That’s even assuming that policymakers have the political will to try to address climate change, which hasn’t been self-evident in the Australian context.

More positively, what the Covid-19 experience tells us is that the public and policymakers have a capacity to listen to and follow the guidance of experts. We seem to recognise that prevention is much better than cure. And when we recognise an issue as a crisis, we appear capable of enacting and accepting extraordinary measures.

Whether the Australian public – and in particular its leaders – can accept that climate change is a crisis is, of course, another thing altogether.

COVIDcast: World economy in flux

Published 5 Jun 2020 10:00   0 Comments

In this episode of COVIDcast, Lowy Institute lead economist Roland Rajah sat down with Adam Tooze to discuss how the Covid-19 economic crisis is evolving and reshaping the world economy. Tooze is Professor of History at Columbia University and the Director of its European Institute. He is also the author of the 2018 book Crashed which is widely acclaimed as one of the best books about the 2008 global financial crisis and its aftermath.

Rajah and Tooze discussed how the story of Covid-19 has rapidly evolved as the crisis has unfolded. Tooze noted how China had gone from facing what many serious people thought could be its Chernobyl moment to getting control of the virus. Similarly, Europe was initially badly hit but has more recently the outlook has improved. Meanwhile, the United States has been on a rollercoaster, with initial fumbles on its health response followed by a massive fiscal and monetary response that has since begun to unravel in partisanship even as social unrest has exploded onto its cities’ streets.


The pair also discussed the importance of a proposed €750 billion European Union Covid recovery fund. Rajah noted that the level of fiscal support is perhaps not as large as the headline figure might suggest but that it was still substantial and could be scaled up in future. Tooze agreed, arguing that it was certainly big enough to qualify as a really serious political step, particularly on the part of Germany. However he also noted that serious blockages remained and the new proposal was far from a done deal.

The conversation then returned to China, focused on the contrast between China currently being a pillar of relative strength in the global economy but with relations with the West souring on nearly every front. Tooze noted that China had clearly chosen this time to “push” and that the West is going to face difficult choices. But cooperation with China also remained essential, especially on climate change. He noted that Europe has the most constructive policy of moving towards a green transition and see China as a potential partner. Tooze concluded by arguing there was enough there for cooperation, even though there is little sympathy between the two at a political level.


COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Aiding the Pacific during Covid – a stock-take and further steps

Early morning fishing, Tonga (ADB/Flickr)
Early morning fishing, Tonga (ADB/Flickr)
Published 4 Jun 2020 05:00   0 Comments

The Covid-19 crisis is now widely seen as the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression. In the Pacific, as in the rest of the world, economic activity has collapsed as a result of lockdowns to contain the virus. As an aid dependent region, a critical question is whether enough outside support will be made available to help Pacific governments keep their economies and societies afloat through the pandemic.

By our estimate, the Pacific’s development partners have so far announced around $825 million (US $570 million) in Covid-19 related financial support, including the debt standstill announced by the G20 in April. That’s equal to about 1.7% of the region’s collective output, not insubstantial. It is also rising as more announcements are made. Nonetheless, it’s still well below the 10% of GDP and upwards being deployed in many advanced economies, including Australia.

Not all the announced amounts are additional. Australia has announced a Covid-19 package for the Pacific worth $100 million but with all of this coming from the existing aid budget. Some reprioritisation of existing support undoubtedly will have made sense. There may also have been some additional funds freed from projects put on hold or delayed due to the virus. The World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for their part have so far announced $143 million in combined Covid-19 response measures, coming from a mix of reprioritisations and stretching their balance sheets.

At the global level, the headline grabbing news has been the debt servicing standstill announced by the G20 for the poorest countries (including most of the Pacific Islands countries). The standstill only applies to debt owed to bilateral creditors and lasts until the end of the year. By our estimate, this year’s bilateral debt relief (including a hold on this year’s PNG’s repayment of Australia’s $440 million) accounts for around 60% of total debt servicing costs in the Pacific or about 1% of regional GDP. Most of this reflects the standstill on Australia’s one-off exceptional loan to PNG. Without this, the standstill would only be worth about 0.2% of regional GDP (and 28% of total debt servicing). The bulk of this smaller amount reflects bilateral Chinese loans. Notably, though China has doled out many large loans in the Pacific over the past decade or so, these are still operating in their interest-only phases – meaning debt servicing to China is still quite small.

More important than the debt standstill could be the decision by the G20 to endorse an expansion of the rapid financing windows of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Ordinarily, countries can access up to half their IMF quota in a year and 100% on a cumulative basis (quotas being in reference to each country’s IMF voting rights). This has now been expanded to 100% and 150% respectively. The amounts on offer come with limited IMF conditionality and, at least for the Pacific, are very sizeable – equal to 3.5% of GDP for the average Pacific economy and over 8% of GDP for Kiribati and Tuvalu. So far, the IMF has only announced a rapid financing package for Samoa and Solomon Islands but approvals for other Pacific countries might also be in the works, noting the IMF says more than 100 countries have requested emergency help.

What more could be done in the near term?

Extending the debt standstill could be especially beneficial for the Pacific, given multilateral debt is quite significant.

One simple step would be to extend the duration of the G20 measures already announced. Currently the debt standstill will expire by the end of the year and enhanced access to the IMF rapid financing windows will revert back to normal levels from 5 October. Yet, financing needs in response to Covid-19 will likely persist well beyond these arbitrary dates, in the Pacific and elsewhere. Continued support will be needed. Extending these existing measures to the end of 2021 would be a relatively uncomplicated further step.

Another obvious step would be to broaden the bilateral debt standstill to multilateral and private sector creditors, as the G20 has already called for. Extending the debt standstill in this way could be especially beneficial for the Pacific, given multilateral debt is quite significant. According to our estimates, this could free up an additional 0.8% of GDP for the average Pacific economy or around $400 million across the region.

The IMF could also expand the total amounts available under its rapid financing windows. The IMF has a trillion-dollar total lending capacity. Many have argued this may not be enough for the current crisis. Yet, as Brad Setser of the Council on Foreign Relations has pointed out, the current risk for the IMF looks more like it could end up lending too little to too few.

A relatively straightforward way for the IMF to get more money out the door would be to simply substantially expand the maximum amounts available under its rapid financing windows. Another option would be for the IMF to issue a new round of Special Drawing Rights, though this has already been raised by many leading figures while the United States has remained opposed at least for now.

Finally, bilateral development partners like Australia could of course do more. Ideally by providing more grants but also via additional loans, if need be.

US break with WHO: Where does it leave the rest of the world?

World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, photographed on 29 May 2020 (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, photographed on 29 May 2020 (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 3 Jun 2020 09:00   0 Comments

International health law is closely associated with the work of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the treaties it oversees, of which the 2005 International Health Regulations are the most prominent. In recent months, the United States has been critical of the WHO and its response to the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly the manner in which WHO engaged with China when reports of the disease emerged. US President Donald Trump has increasingly advanced this critique since April, which reached its high point on 29 May, when he announced the US was “terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization” and stated:

The world needs answers from China on the virus. The death and destruction caused by this is incalculable. We must have answers not only for us but for the rest of the world.

This announcement is a culmination of growing US frustration with the WHO. On 14 April, a US decision was made to suspend financial contributions to the organisation pending a review. As of January 2020, the US was due to make a US$58 million payment to its WHO contributions for this year, with a further US$41 million in arrears. On 18 May, Trump had written to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus detailing the US concerns, including China’s notification to the WHO of the Covid-19 outbreak, the WHO response and the alleged delays in the declaration of a public health emergency of international concern and in the declaration of a pandemic. Trump ended the letter by stating:

It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly to the world. The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China.

Trump’s letter was delivered when the annual World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO, was about to commence its 2020 meeting. A unanimous 19 May Assembly resolution co-sponsored by 137 members, including the European Union and Australia, called upon the WHO Director-General to:

Initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with Member States, a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation, including using existing mechanisms, as appropriate, to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to Covid-19….

Particular aspects of this evaluation are to include the effectiveness of the mechanisms at WHO’s disposal, the functioning of the International Health Regulations, and the actions of WHO and its timelines pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic. This 2020 resolution gives the WHO Director-General a clear mandate for reviewing the WHO response to the pandemic and the functioning of the International Health Regulations.

The Regulations are a multilateral treaty with 196 states parties, including China and the US, which entered into force in 2007. They create a series of obligations for states parties, including surveillance (Article 5), notification (Article 6), information-sharing (Article 7) and consultation (Article 8) with respect to events that take place within their territory that may constitute an international health concern.

The US freezing its WHO funding while the agency is responding to Covid-19 will not assist global action on the pandemic, nor will it assist in the WHO conducting the evaluation that Australia promoted, nor will it get the answers the US is seeking.

In the case of Covid-19, the WHO China Country Office was informed of pneumonia with an unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China from 31 December 2019 – 3 January 2020. The WHO issued its first Covid-19 Situation Report on 21 January 2020, in which it outlined the sequence of events that eventually resulted in the first meeting of the WHO Emergency Committee on 22 January. A critical determination under the International Health Regulations is an assessment that a situation constitutes a “public health emergency of international concern”, the characteristics of which include that there is an extraordinary event which under the Regulations is determined to constitute a public health risk to other states through the international spread of disease, and potentially to require a coordinated international response (Article 1). The WHO Emergency Committee eventually made that determination on 30 January. The declaration of Covid-19 as a pandemic was made on 12 March.

With respect to the extent of China’s obligations to notify WHO of a disease outbreak, the critical Article 6(1) notification obligation is that:

Each State Party shall notify WHO, by the most efficient means of communication available by way of the National IHR [International Health Regulations] Focal Point, and within 24 hours of assessment of public health information, of all events which may constitute a public health emergency of international concern within its territory….

The US freezing its WHO funding while the agency is responding to Covid-19 will not assist global action on the pandemic, nor will it assist in the WHO conducting the evaluation that Australia promoted, nor will it get the answers the US is seeking. No timelines have been set for the evaluation. The World Health Assembly is scheduled to resume its deliberations later in 2020, where there will be an expectation that progress will have been made on the Covid-19 evaluation. A critical factor here will be the cooperation provided by China in facilitating the evaluation, especially whether WHO experts will be permitted to visit China and engage Chinese government officials to identify the origins of the disease.

Time will tell what the outcome of that process will be, and in particular whether there will be any meaningful reform of the WHO and the International Health Regulations. Amendments to the Regulations can only be made through the World Health Assembly. In the meantime, all of the  member states need to play as constructive a role in that process as possible, because WHO and the Regulations represent the only current viable global process to respond to a pandemic.

So far, the US has not offered any alternate.

Going local: Lessons from Covid response in Indonesia

Aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami that struck the island of Sulawesi in September 2018, in Palu, Indonesia (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami that struck the island of Sulawesi in September 2018, in Palu, Indonesia (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Published 1 Jun 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Covid-19 and the significant changes it presents are forcing new ways of working, including for humanitarian responders. In Indonesia, the government response to the crisis has been criticised internally and internationally as slow and lacking transparency. Senior government figures downplayed the crisis in its early days, and agencies and the public struggled to get reliable information about the prevalence of the disease.

As the public has pushed for more action and information in order to better understand and respond to the unfolding emergency, civil society groups, particularly those well versed in disaster management and humanitarian response, have quickly taken action. The results have shown not only what is possible in the Indonesian context, but also pointed a way towards reform that the international humanitarian system has talked about for years but has never really seen materialise.

The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), the first of its kind, identified many of the major challenges to the humanitarian system and how the global professional community could address them. One example is a focus on strengthening and empowering local leadership, rather than reinforcing the dominance of international humanitarian actors, including in coordination mechanisms, as well as closing the gap between traditional long-term development actors, peacebuilders and humanitarian responders.

SEJAJAR presents an opportunity for learning about local leadership at multiple levels, and how to improve collaboration between people within and outside the traditional humanitarian system.

Despite the best intentions of the reform agenda and a plethora of commitments, progress has been hampered by persistent bureaucratic barriers and a lack of evidence of change.

Recent research suggests that Indonesia is a prime candidate for testing an approach to country-led reform. Following the devastating earthquakes and tsunamis that struck Lombok and Central Sulawesi in 2018, the country took major steps to localise humanitarian response and to empower national actors to drive decision-making. This decision surprised many agencies, and forced adoption of the new ways of working promoted at the WHS in 2016.  

While the localisation agenda has gained widespread recognition, in some countries it has been largely rhetoric. Indonesia’s policy compelled the necessary shift in power dynamics and the roles and responsibilities of humanitarian actors. In the Sulawesi relief effort, national organisations took the place of big international agencies, and civil society groups and first responders were given priority. Indonesia has also made progress in optimising humanitarian coordination, inviting national networks to join the UN-led Humanitarian Country Team, the main forum for coordination and strategy. Further, the government has formally adopted the cluster approach, which aims at improving planning and efficiency within specific areas of need, such as health, food, logistics or sanitation.

As the Covid-19 crisis unfolded in Indonesia, the groundwork laid by those developments helped enable a locally driven response and coordination effort. The Pujiono Centre for Disaster and Climate Risk Reduction Studies provides a clear example of effective local action. The Centre acted quickly to pivot its emerging coordination platform into a Covid-19 response network. From simple beginnings in early March, the SEJAJAR network-of-networks has grown to include 25 national networks across sectors, and nearly to 600 sub-national level organisations across 34 provinces, including Nusa Tenggara Timur, Central Sulawesi and West Papua.

SEJAJAR, an acronym of Sekretariat Jaringan-antar-Jaringan (OMS-LSM in Bahasa Indonesia), means equal in English, with the aim to reflect the equality among members of the network working together at all levels to curb the outbreak.

SEJAJAR provides a vehicle for collective engagement with government, a periodic webinar series to discuss critical issues and regular training opportunities for members, on subjects such as NGO business continuity and coping with financial crises in the face of Covid-19. In recent weeks, it has secured participation in the government-led National and Provincial Task Forces. Civil society groups have also been able to engage policy debates with ministers and senior officials on Covid-19 issues. SEJAJAR provides support for other networks, both within ASEAN and across the Asia-Pacific region.  

Working in collaboration with OXFAM and the Muhammadiyah Disaster Management Centre, the initiative has from the outset intended to achieve a post-Covid Indonesia that has a strong civil society in equal partnership with government.

In a number of ways, the network provides a powerful example of progress in country-led reform:

  • Extending the nexus: bringing together representatives from development, peacebuilding and humanitarian bodies to discuss how to improve response in Indonesia;
  • Shifting the power: changing the dynamics between the traditionally dominant international responders and local actors. Local organisations can source, negotiate and acquire products and services from international actors in humanitarian clusters as suppliers
  • Area-based coordination: locally led coordination at the provincial level ensures that structures, responses and discussion reflect local priorities, are contextually appropriate and leverage the best-placed resources.

Although still in its infancy, SEJAJAR presents an opportunity for learning about local leadership at multiple levels, and how to improve collaboration between people within and outside the traditional humanitarian system.

It also raises issues to explore further: How has the mechanism shifted power dynamics between stakeholders in Indonesia? What lessons can the provincial model be applied to global thinking around area-based coordination?

Understanding this initiative will equip stakeholders in Indonesia and elsewhere to improve a humanitarian system that is now, more than ever, in need of rapid and fundamental change.

Are African nations putting policing over public health?

A demonstrator is arrested by police at a protest for more government food distributions during the Covid-19 crisis, 18 May in Kampala, Uganda (Sumy Sadurni/AFP via Getty Images)
A demonstrator is arrested by police at a protest for more government food distributions during the Covid-19 crisis, 18 May in Kampala, Uganda (Sumy Sadurni/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 29 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

In the health and epidemiological challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, countries have had little choice but to introduce strict measures to contain its spread, banning travel, imposing lockdowns, releasing prisoners en masse and bringing other actions unthinkable under ordinary circumstances.

In many respects, the response in most African nations has been no different. But as the pandemic threatens to devastate already weak health care systems on the continent, the urgent need to control the spread of Covid-19 is even more pronounced than elsewhere.

The shortage of medical expertise, equipment and facilities, however, stands in stark contrast to the powers of law enforcement and security that have been exercised under the pretext of combatting the pandemic. As the last couple of months have demonstrated, this has laid the groundwork for a rise in police brutality, overreach, harassment, intimidation, corruption and violence.

To give an idea of how under-resourced some countries are, the Central African Republic has only three ventilators in a country of just under 5 million people. Somalia has none. South Sudan has 24 ICU beds for a population of 12 million, while it is estimated that 95% of people in Lesotho do not have household access to soap and water.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that “people are dying because of the inappropriate application of measures that have been supposedly put in place to save them”.

So far, the number of cases has remained low. On 22 May, the World Health Organisation Regional Office in Africa said Covid-19 cases “have not grown at the same exponential rate as in other regions … Africa has not experienced the high mortality seen in some parts of the world”. Despite this relatively good news, global institutions and national governments have nevertheless cautioned against complacency.

But across Africa, measures adopted to combat the spread of the virus, principally lockdowns and curfews, have been accompanied by an expanded role for the police – and in some cases, security forces, leading to more deaths than the virus itself.  

In April, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called up over 75,000 members of the National Defence Force (SANDF) to assist the police with enforcing lockdown measures. Ramaphosa’s declaration of a state of disaster increased the powers of law enforcement to question civilians, administer fines and arrest persons allegedly contravening lockdown measures.

Other countries, such as Ethiopia and Botswana, have invoked a state of emergency, giving them the constitutional authority to suspend political, civil, economic and social rights. 

Elsewhere, there have been myriad incidents reported of police and security forces using disproportionate – sometimes lethal – force against unarmed civilians. Victims across the continent have reported beatings, being shot with rubber bullets and tear gas, whippings, and rape. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted on 27 April that “violations have often been committed against people belonging to the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population … people are dying because of the inappropriate application of measures that have been supposedly put in place to save them”.

In March in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, a 13-year old boy was killed by a stray bullet while standing on his balcony during curfew. The nation’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority suggested the officer responsible should be charged with murder, and the Inspector General of Police, Hillary Mutyambai, vowed the police would investigate the circumstances of his death.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in an April address, “I want to apologise to all Kenyans for ... some excesses that were conducted.” It remains to be seen, however, whether victims of police brutality will receive justice.

Between 30 March and 13 April, the Nigerian police killed 18 civilians, which the Secretary of the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission described as extrajudicial executions. The Nigerian police have responded combatively, rejecting allegations of misconduct.

On 29 March, in the South African township of Vosloorus, 40-year-old Sibusiso Amos was shot and killed on his veranda by a police officer and a private security guard. On 10 April, Collins Khosa was beaten to death by members of the SANDF, who entered his premises after discovering a cup of alcohol in his front yard. The sale of alcohol during the lockdown is prohibited by the country’s Disaster Management Regulations.

In these cases, the South African government responded swiftly, arresting or suspending those responsible and launching investigations. The High Court ruled that all persons are entitled to fundamental human rights in times of disaster and declared that government bodies such as the SANDF must ensure that law enforcement conducts its duties properly.

There is, obviously, no singular explanation or panacea for law enforcement abuses in Africa. It is a product of country-specific and continent-wide crises interlocking – and independent causes which conspire to create an inhospitable policing climate. There is the innate difficulty in enforcing lockdown measures in urban settings where people lack basic living necessities; the dearth of human rights training for police forces; the not-so-distant memory of the Ebola outbreak; the panic of mass infection; the breakdown of trust between authorities and citizens; and simmering potential for civil unrest. All of these factors contribute to an atmosphere of uncertainty.

As lockdown restrictions eventually ease, this might correspond to a decrease in police brutality and overreach. But it is safe to say that this issue will not vanish from the continent overnight.

COVIDcast: Dame Meg Taylor on keeping Pacific Islands safe

Published 29 May 2020 11:00   0 Comments

In the latest episode of COVIDcast, Jonathan Pryke, Director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific islands Program, sat down with Dame Meg Taylor, Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, to discuss how Covid-19 is affecting health, economics, local communities, climate change, regionalism and geopolitics in the Pacific region.

Dame Meg acknowledged the growing geopolitical tension in the Pacific region but said these dynamics are nothing new to a region that has been dealing with foreign influence for centuries. She made the point Pacific agency should not be underestimated.


The Secretary General praised the “tremendous” response by most Pacific governments to lock down quickly, which has left many Pacific countries Covid-19 free. But this response has come at a “devastating” cost to Pacific economies.

It’s not just the people (working in tourism), the hotels et cetera. It’s about any other business that has an influence to make sure that food is on the table. It’s agriculture, the taxi drivers, the retailers. All this is impacted.

She also discussed the role of traditional welfare systems in filing gaps in social welfare structures and underpinning Pacific resilience, and how these systems are reacting and being tested.

The discussion also covered the need to sharpen the focus on the real crisis that threatens the region – climate change.

Dame Meg endorsed the prospect of a “travel bubble” between Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, while noting it would need to be carefully established to protect vulnerable Pacific communities from coronavirus, and that Pacific leaders should be included in discussions around its establishment. 

The discussion also covered the shortcomings of public health institutions, as well as the need to sharpen the focus on the real crisis that threatens the region – climate change.

COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The middle power alignment in public attitudes about Covid-19

Which direction? (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)
Which direction? (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 29 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia, Canada and European countries have been cooperating together more in initiatives and groupings without the United States or China. Public opinion supports this uptick in middle power cooperation in the face of the aggressive Xi Jinping administration and Trump administration, and the more virulent US-China rivalry.

On 14 May, the Lowy Institute released a poll on Australian views of responses to the Covid-19 pandemic that makes bad reading in Beijing and worse reading in Washington. A poll on the same subject by Angus Reid in Canada released the day before offered similar results. Add to this a recent poll in Germany.

Deliveries of protective equipment and medical supplies this month from China to Montenegro (NATO/Flickr)

In the Lowy poll, 68% answered they had a less favourable view of the Chinese system of government due to its handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Seven out of 10 agreed that China had not handled the outbreak well.

In the Canadian poll, only 14% expressed a favourable view of China, down from 29% in November 2019. There was very little faith that Chinese authorities have been open and transparent about the Covid-19 situation inside China.

Across the Atlantic in Germany, seven out of 10 agreed that “more transparency on the part of the Chinese government would have contributed towards mitigating or avoiding the current corona pandemic”. Only one out of four disagreed. More than a third of Germans polled reported having a worse view of China due to the pandemic compared with 25% whose views of China had improved.

Directing a drive-thru coronavirus testing site in New Jersey (New Jersey National Guard/Flickr)

The Lowy poll showed that, by a wide margin, Australians believe the US response has been less effective than that of China. Only 10% of Australians feel that American authorities have handled the coronavirus outbreak well, compared with 31% who believe that Chinese authorities have. Consistent with this judgement, 37% believe that China will be more powerful globally than before this pandemic, while only 6% think the US will be.

The commonality of these popular views should encourage more joint diplomatic responses to Beijing or Washington.

In the German poll, 36% agreed that having close relations with China was important for Germany, up from 24% in 2019. China is now level-pegging in Germany with the US on this question after being far behind last year. For three out of four Germans, Covid-19 has hurt their view of the US, while only 1 out of 20 see it the other way.

In the Canadian poll, only 38% of Canadians expressed a favourable view of the US, down from 49% in 2019.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, global views of the Trump and Xi administrations were worsening. Recent polling suggests that the pandemic appears to be adding to this, in the Western world at least.

The strength of these views in Australia, Canada and Germany bolster their respective governments in responding to China or the US. The commonality of these popular views should encourage more joint diplomatic responses to Beijing or Washington, such as the 23 May joint statement by the Australian, Canadian and British governments in support of Hong Kong’s legal autonomy.     

Designing a “built environment” for the pandemic age

Adapting to lockdown, a street library in Richmond, Virginia (Ronnie Pitman/Flickr)
Adapting to lockdown, a street library in Richmond, Virginia (Ronnie Pitman/Flickr)
Published 28 May 2020 10:00   0 Comments

We don’t give much thought to a flushing toilet, until the damn thing is broken. The same goes for the footpath that runs out the front of the house. A ribbon of smooth concrete serves as an unconscious guide for our feet, unless it’s cracked and potholed, transforming what is intended as a community service into an obstacle to avoid.

But as the world experiments with lifting the Covid-19 lockdown, we’re being encouraged to think a lot more about the everyday background of constructed items that make up our homes and cities. Little changes in this “built environment” might just keep us healthy, while a major mindset shift could help even more. This isn’t just a challenge for wealthy countries that experienced the early wave after coronavirus spread from China, but for emergent nations, too, with less established infrastructure.

The issues are in rethinking design, operations, maintenance and behaviour, all to ensure that the modern workplace – and hence the broader economy – is not so susceptible to the disruption of disease.

After all, preventing the festering risk of disease was the initial goal of those easily forgotten yet vast and complex sewerage systems that connect the sprawling suburbs with far distant waste treatment plants. Footpaths came about to keep pedestrians safe from the increasing congestion and speed of road traffic. The list goes on. Street lighting, public parks, underground trains, regulations to ensure fire safety standards or stop the use of hazardous materials, and more examples besides, all developed with the ideal of improving safety and the quality of life.

“The history of the built environment is the history of public health,” says Elena Bondareva, a consultant who has worked across the world on projects as varied as office space design to discussions about building science. You could go as far back as the earliest days of human civilization, as Bondareva puts it: “Why do you think we slept in caves, then built up villages? Why were the oldest cities in the world surrounded by walls and watchtowers?”

Now, in this new age when terms such as “social distancing” and “moist breath zone” are part of the vernacular, Bondareva sees the challenge as one where the built environment is at the forefront of reinforcing public health, in a similar fashion to the way construction standards and other measures are recognised as important to mitigating climate change. Bondareva spoke to me from the US, where she works for building science consultants CETEC, after she passed along an article written during the first weeks of lockdown, urging those with expertise in the field to advance a view.

So much of what we don’t often notice in a city is designed to keep us safe (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

The issues raised have fascinating consequences. A front-page story last week, for example, warned of a $50 billion wipeout of the value of commercial office properties in Australia’s big cities, as companies assess whether to maintain big tower offices or persist with working-from-home measures. Consequent reduced pressure on transport networks – roads and rail alike – would be only one flow-on result. Another report this morning looked at the prospect of more people choosing to shift to regional towns away from Australia’s crowded cities that hug the coastline – and taking their jobs with them. 

Not that Bondareva is giving up on the office just yet.

“We’re social creatures. When interacting with others, we’ve evolved to consume some 90% of our information non-verbally – that’s very hard online.” While she is in no doubt there will be change, she doesn’t see a 2021 where people remain in solitary capsules connected by the internet. And besides, so many jobs simply don’t come with an online option.

But the issues are in rethinking design, operations, maintenance and behaviour, all to ensure that the modern workplace – and hence the broader economy – is not so susceptible to the disruption of disease. Shared “hot desks” suddenly seem far less desirable, while a building site might need to slow down to allow different trades the physical space required to safely get the job done.

“There is indisputable science that our spaces define our health,” Bondareva says. “Is there leadership and courage to make change based on these facts – the way we have done throughout history?” She cites past examples such as the introduction of mandatory seat belts as a measure where governments moved beyond voluntary options that private industry might recommend to tackle the road toll. Nor should this be limited to thinking only about coronavirus. Other diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and issues related to mental health, can all be exacerbated by the places where we live and work.

Will the commuter crowds be diminished? (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

There is a major international dimension to such debates, too. The post-Covid world could see the prospect of “leapfrogging” by emerging nations, in much the same manner as the expensive roll-out of copper networks for fixed telephone lines was bypassed by technological advances such as the mobile phone. Attracting labour to Covid-safe workplaces, for example. Regulations for new buildings could minimise the use of materials where coronavirus can linger and spread, for instance, as scientists learn more about what type of surfaces Covid-19 can survive on, and for how long. Or codes could be adopted to change the way air is circulated in a room – whether by the placement of windows, vents or coolers are placed – to limit the mechanics of airborne transmission.

“Frankly, this is where I challenge countries like Australia and the US to stay competitive because of the time lag,” says Bondareva. The adaption need for climate change again offers  a guide. “If we need at least a decade to get today’s petrol-powered vehicles off the road, the challenge is ever greater with existing buildings. This gives an immense advantage to regions developing more rapidly. If China was set to open 600 airports faster than an Australian city can get one brownfield district redeveloped, isn’t that an advantage once we put our finger on what precisely – materials, HVAC [Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning], occupancy profiles, building typology – halts infectious disease transmission?”

Keeping the taps running and the power on is no longer enough.

A cry for help as Covid‑19 sweeps Latin America and hunger bites

Food distribution last month at Chácara Santa Luzia in Brazil (Paulo H. Carvalho/Agência Brasília/Flickr)
Food distribution last month at Chácara Santa Luzia in Brazil (Paulo H. Carvalho/Agência Brasília/Flickr)
Published 27 May 2020 10:30   0 Comments

It was a cry for help, the word “hambre” (hunger) projected against the Torre Telefónica building in downtown Santiago, Chile’s capital. It abruptly woke up a city that has been under total quarantine since mid-May. “We are locked up and we are starving,” said José Morales, a resident of El Bosque, an impoverished shanty town south of the Chilean capital.

The light projection against the 1990’s mobile phone shaped telecommunications building – an icon of the now crumbling Chilean neoliberal economic model – happened just a few hours after a violent clash on 18 May between the police and dozens of El Bosque residents. “Those who are not dying of the corona are dying of hunger,” Morales told me on the phone. “Yes sir, hunger is back in Chile.”



With almost 640,000 cases and more than 35,000 deaths, Latin America has become the new focus of the coronavirus crisis. The pandemic has landed in a region where 30% of its 629 million inhabitants can be classed as poor, and about 10% live in what can be regarded as misery. In its sprawling and impoverished slums – where around 117 million poor live – a new pandemic is breeding, hunger.

In Brazil, with the second-highest number of cases of coronavirus in the world, hunger is ferociously biting. It seems to be a long time since 2003–14, when the country under the Workers’ Party managed to pull 29 million out of poverty. That was a time when Brazil, the largest economy of Latin America, came off the UN map of hunger.

The Brazilian impoverished favelas, home to 13 million, are not only agonizing about the lack of food but also about the lack of clean water – so fundamental to fighting the virus. For Rodrigo Afonso, executive director of the NGO Ação da Cidadania (Citizen Action), “tens of millions of Brazilians are in a situation of food insecurity”.

According to the World Bank, this year Brazil’s economy will contract by 5%. This is bad news for a quarter of the Brazilian population – some 50 million – who live in poverty and under the shadow of hunger. “Where there is hunger there is no hope,” once said former Brazilian president Luiz “Lula” da Silva. In Brazil – led by health hazardous president, Jair Bolsonaro – hope is in short supply.

Waiting for food distribution last month at Chácara Santa Luzia in Brazil (Paulo H. Carvalho/Agência Brasília/Flickr)

Globally, due to the coronavirus pandemic’s economic crisis, the number of people suffering from acute hunger could double to 265 million this year, according to the UN World Food Program. In Latin America and the Caribbean hunger today affects 42.5 million people.

According to Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, CEPAL, this year Latin American will experience its biggest economic contraction in history. During 2020 the CEPAL expects that poverty would increase by 4.4 percentage points from 30.3 to 34.7% – this means 29 new million poor. Between poverty and hunger there is a terrifying slippery slope.

All across Latin America hunger is rapidly becoming a powerful detonator of anger – looting, unrest, violence and banging empty pots are on the rise.

Argentina is the second largest economy in Latin America. According to the National Institute of Statistic and Census of Argentina (INDEC, in Spanish) 35.5% of its population of approximately 45 million live in poverty. The government has reported that 11 million are now relying on food assistance – this is a substantial increase from 8 million pre-pandemic. The one-off $10,000 Argentinean pesos – approximately US$ 163.42 – that the government distributed last April among the poorest families was not enough to guarantee food.

After Brazil and Mexico, Colombia, with approximately 48 million, is the third most populated Latin American country. In Colombia hunger has a colour – red. Since April when the quarantine started, red rags such as tea towels, t-shirts and even underwear have waved from impoverished Colombian homes signalling the lack of enough food as a call for help.

The red rag symbol has spread rapidly in several shanty towns of the country – where approximately 6.2 million live.

The first red rags began appearing in Soacha – a sprawling slum city in Bogota where one million people live or rather try to survive. Soacha is also one of the largest concentrations of people displaced from the five decades of civil war. Thousands of Venezuelans live there too – refugees from Venezuela’s atrocious economic crisis. “I am not as concerned with the coronavirus as I am with hunger in this city,” warned Soacha’s mayor Juan Carlos Saldarriaga in March. “If we do not turn on all the alarms and international cooperation, we will have more deaths from hunger than from coronaviruses.”

Drive-thru Covid-19 testing, Brasilia (Leopoldo Silva/Agência Senado/Flickr)

Latin American food security has worsened in the last few years, according to a report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO. According to this organisation, a third of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean already live in a precarious state of “food insecurity.” And the coronavirus, the report said, will exacerbate the problem. “In Latin America, hunger is just around the corner,” Julio Berdegue, the Latin American representative of FAO told the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio. “It is essential to keep the food system alive so that the health crisis does not turn into a food crisis,” he said.

Perhaps it is already too late – hunger is back, as the resident of Santiago’s El Bosque shanty town told me over the phone. All across Latin America hunger is rapidly becoming a powerful detonator of anger – looting, unrest, violence and banging empty pots are on the rise. And authorities are resorting to the usual measures, police and military repression, false fixes and shallow promises. In the era of the coronavirus, right now, Latin America is gliding into its darkest days yet.

Rohingya in Malaysia, doubly trapped

A group of Rohingya refugees wait to be screened for Covd-19 at a health clinic in Kuala Lumpur, 24 March (Rahman Roslan/Getty Images)
A group of Rohingya refugees wait to be screened for Covd-19 at a health clinic in Kuala Lumpur, 24 March (Rahman Roslan/Getty Images)
Published 27 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

For some people living in the Ampang district in eastern Kuala Lumpur, self-isolation is nothing new. The area is known for its concentration of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, nestled in the grimy apartments and neighbourhoods of this former tin mining centre, and they haven't been going out for a while. The Rohingya are generally tolerated here, but here as elsewhere across the country, they are denied any real rights or protection from authorities, abuse, rape and kidnapping. 

Now, improbably, the need to stay home just got more urgent: the same “corona panic” that has gripped many countries around the world has taken root as well in Malaysia. 

Panics have a way of seeking out victims, and the Rohingya in Malaysia have been easy targets. In a now too-familiar fashion, social media has provided the means to misinform and inflame.

The thugs and gangs who regularly rumble Rohingya refugees in Malaysia need little prompting at the best of times. Now the trigger points are in abundance.

The latest episode seems to have been ignited by a video, released in mid-April and aired widely on Facebook, which apparently shows a Rohingya refugee man demanding citizenship and other rights for Rohingya in Malaysia. The video appears now to have been taken down. 

Those in the Rohingya community seem confused about the source of the alleged video. Some say it was planted by anyone from local thugs to “higher-ups”. Others believe it never existed in the first place. 

Either way, the video, real or not, has led anti-Rohingya elements to rachet up abuse online and ­– notwithstanding the anti-Covid isolation laws known as the Movement Control Order (MCO) – in public.

Part of the problem is that most Rohingya, struggling at the best of times as undocumented workers, have been unable to generate income under the MCO restrictions. Some, when they have ventured out to earn money, have been attacked for not following the protocols.

As in many countries, confusion and panic are rife. In the absence of clear messages and leadership, the Rohingya have become both the victims of the MCO restrictions and easy scapegoats.

US-based Rohingya activist Sharifah Shakirah says the normal pressures for Rohingya have become intensified by the lockdown situation.

“Now they are jobless, been arrested and put in detention camps. They are traumatised.”

But there are wider factors at play.

For one, the deadline for Myanmar to report to the International Court of Justice with evidence of progress, following the December 2019 hearing on claims of genocide against Rohingya against the state, was on 23 May.

The report was apparently handed in – with little fanfare and little detail on what it contains. But the tension may have prompted pro-Myanmar provocations in Malaysia, especially given national elections in Myanmar are set for later this year.

Another issue is Malyasia’s own political uncertainty. The collapse of the coalition government led by Mohamed Mahathir in February saw race and nationality issues in the week-long leadership turmoil in Kuala Lumpur, likened to Game of Thrones, as it has often been in Malaysian politics. The new government of Prime Minister Muhyaddin Yassin has looked anything but stable in the months since and the upshot of this political upheaval only serves an atmosphere of discomfort, at a highly fractious time in the country and around the world.

And amid this scenario, the refugee boats from Myanmar, full of hapless and desperate Rohingya, have started reappearing off the coast of Malaysia and other countries. From mid-April, likely prompted by a “leave no-one behind” Covid-19 statement from ASEAN on 14 April (Malaysia and Myanmar are both ASEAN members), the growing wave is once again throwing refugees onto Malay coastlines.

In some ways, it hardly matters whether the rumoured video apparently behind this latest outbreak exists. The thugs and gangs who regularly rumble Rohingya refugees in Malaysia need little prompting at the best of times. Now the trigger points are in abundance.

Traditionally, uncertainty in political leadership in the region translates to shifting pressures at street level. The weakest or most easily victimised in any society are generally marginalised and attacked as the population seeks to test its power and is perhaps stoked by politicians at home and abroad, looking for distractions or power plays.

Rohingya refugees in Malaysia are, once again, seemingly trapped in a crushing vice that they are powerless to avoid, and from which they cannot escape. 

New Caledonia: coronavirus deepens the divide

Social distancing can have a poignant meaning when the term is introduced during a long-running independence debate (Theo Rouby/AFP via Getty Images)
Social distancing can have a poignant meaning when the term is introduced during a long-running independence debate (Theo Rouby/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 26 May 2020 14:00   0 Comments

Four months out from New Caledonia’s next scheduled vote on independence, a pro-independence leader has denounced France’s handling of the Covid pandemic in the territory as colonialist and partisan, and called for the expulsion of France’s senior political and military representatives. The independence coalition FLNKS (National Kanak Socialist Liberation Front) has sought a postponement of the 6 September vote to early November.

The September referendum is part of the final stages of the 1998 Noumea Accord. It follows a first vote on independence in November 2018 that delivered a 57–43% “no” vote. Under the terms of the accord, up to three votes can be held, if the answer remains “no” to independence.

France imposed a nationwide lockdown in mid-March to combat coronavirus and legislated to relax isolation measures on 12 May. Unlike metropolitan France, with its high death toll of more than 28,000, New Caledonia has so far only experienced 18 cases, with no deaths. It applied stricter measures than in France for new arrivals, requiring 21 days of isolation.

On 18 May, the President of the pro-independence Union Calédonienne (UC) and FLNKS spokesperson Daniel Goa released an open letter to all New Caledonians claiming that France’s handling of the pandemic in New Caledonia was contrary to the Noumea Accord and designed to shore up pro-France loyalties in the lead-up to the September referendum.

Goa questioned France’s motivation presenting its financial support during the pandemic as that of a providential administration, when the funds would be repaid by New Caledonian taxpayers.

Specifically, Goa claimed that France’s applying nationwide policy to New Caledonia was inconsistent with the 1999 Organic Law implementing the Accord, giving New Caledonia responsibility for “social protection, public health and hygiene, sanitary control to its borders” (Item 4). He listed numerous, and emotive, recent historical examples of the French government reneging on promises to New Caledonians. Saying the simple application of French coronavirus management policy to New Caledonia was inappropriate, given the difference between relatively Covid-free New Caledonia and the rest of France, he criticised flights continuing to arrive from other parts of France, bringing in French nationals.

Goa accused French authorities of variable application of local isolation strategy to its senior officials. He listed cases of the High Commissioner Laurent Prévost himself, his Secretary-General and military personnel allegedly not conforming to locally determined isolation provisions. He said these policies endangered the lives of New Caledonians, noting 80% of Kanaks had been decimated by foreign diseases in past “quasi-genocide”. He said the policies undermined local economic strategies, including working with Covid-free regional island states to reopen tourism.

He accused France of collusion with loyalist parties, and of Prévost selectively including loyalists in his crisis teams, with a “subliminal” effect on New Caledonians in this pre-referendum period. Goa questioned France’s motivation presenting its financial support during the pandemic as that of a providential administration, when the funds would be repaid by New Caledonian taxpayers. He labelled the French government “our colonisers” who had unilaterally possessed New Caledonia in 1841 and 1853.

Finally Goa said his party would no longer participate in political dialogue with such a “partisan and disloyal” partner, and proposed a new strategy for the “colonised v. coloniser” relationship. He called for the departure of the High Commissioner and his team, and of the General of the French forces and his personnel; for the suspension of flights coming in from metropolitan France and its other territories; and the non-application of French coronavirus policies to New Caledonia. If changes were not made, the UC would call on the people to protect the population, and would take responsibility for protection measures.

In response, Prévost published a letter reaffirming the aim of French policy to protect all New Caledonians while respecting the Noumea Accord. He accused Goa of undermining the unity of New Caledonian society and institutions, which was fundamental to successful management of the crisis. He renewed a commitment to the local 21-day isolation measures and refuted accusations about himself, his Secretary-General and military personnel. He said he included all provincial presidents (independence and loyalist), the (Kanak) Customary Senate, and other local institutions in managing the crisis.

Loyalist leaders reacted strongly, labelling the pro-independence actions as outright politicisation of the coronavirus situation designed to sway France in their favour, and recommitting to their preferred September referendum date.

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe took a moderating line. In France’s National Assembly on 19 May, answering a question from New Caledonian MPs, Philippe acknowledged that France’s 12 May legislation made the local 21-day isolation policy more difficult but not entirely impossible. He foreshadowed “evolution” of the legislation when it was considered by the Senate.

The party statements deepen divisions at a sensitive time in this critical final referendum process. The strong pro-independence signal of discontent, couched in emotional language from the pre–Noumea Accord past, hinting at non-participation in the process and invoking a regional perspective, reminds France of the challenges of impartiality as it organises a second independence vote.

​​​​​​​COVIDcast Episode 12: Pandemic, emerging markets, and US dollar

Published 22 May 2020 10:30   0 Comments

In Episode 12 of COVIDcast, Roland Rajah, Director of the International Economy Program, sat down with Brad Setser, Senior Fellow for International Economics, Council on Foreign Relations, to discuss the upheaval brought about by the pandemic in emerging economies and what this has revealed about the importance of the US dollar in the functioning of the global economy.

Rajah and Setser began by discussing the dramatic outflow of capital from emerging markets between March and April. Setser described this as “the most rapid withdrawal of foreign financing that anyone had seen since the global financial crisis”. Although markets have since stabilised largely due to the intervention of the Federal Reserve (the Fed), a number of economies remain very fragile. As Setser put it:

“So long as oil prices remain low, or tourism remains shutdown, or if you needed foreign financing to roll over your debt, foreign financing remains scarce … Even though the most important shock and the peak of market stress is past, some countries are living off buffers and borrowed time.”

Setser also noted that while the Fed had reacted creatively and forcefully, the International Monetary Fund had been left on the sidelines and had yet to offer a crisis facility that is attractive to the big emerging markets.


On the role of the US dollar as global reserve currency, Rajah questioned the ability of emerging markets to wean themselves off dollar dependence. Setser argued the US dollar remains the most used to denominate world trade and financial assets – “as long as that’s the case, in a crisis you’re going to need dollars”.

Despite China’s goal to establish the RMB as a global reserve, the crisis and the response of the Fed, including providing dollar swap lines, had reinforced the dominance of the US dollar.

The US dollar remains the most used to denominate world trade and financial assets – “as long as that’s the case, in a crisis you’re going to need dollars”.

Given this dominance, Rajah asked why the United States did not actively take advantage of the dollar as a powerful tool of attraction in its competition for influence with China, and whether it had been too selective in the countries to which it offered swap lines. Setser said “the Fed’s mandate doesn’t include providing political swap lines to gain political influence” yet also that “the United States hasn’t made full use of its financial power”. America could try to compete with China to provide financing for infrastructure as well as financing in times of crisis through the Treasury’s balance sheet, he said.

Rajah concluded by asking what emerging economies could and should do to get through the current crisis. He noted everyone needs to run large fiscal deficits, but, in the absence of outside help, emerging economies are turning to their own central banks in unconventional ways reminiscent of quantitative easing in advanced economies. Setser argued it was a balance of risks versus benefits, and that each country has a choice to make, “between a weaker currency and easier access to central bank financing for fiscal deficits”.


COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

The battle for a Covid vaccine risks losing the “war”

Samples to be tested for coronavirus at the “Fire Eye” laboratory in Wuhan, China, 6 February (AFP via Getty Images)
Samples to be tested for coronavirus at the “Fire Eye” laboratory in Wuhan, China, 6 February (AFP via Getty Images)
Published 22 May 2020 09:00   0 Comments

Leaders of nations around the globe have resorted to the language of warfare to characterise their fight against Covid-19. From US President Donald Trump, who declared himself a “war president”, to China’s Xi Jinping committing to a “people’s war”, to Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson invoking the “bulldog spirit of the Blitz”, to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte threatening to introduce martial law to fight the virus, and to Australian ministers and officials talking of “winning the war” against the virus, the terminology of battle has been the lingua franca of the times.

A universal threat has evoked a universal language to rally the citizens of the world to the battle the novel coronavirus.Yet, in the face of this common enemy, the world is bitterly divided. There have been ugly fights over who gains access to the materials required to deal with the virus, underhanded tactics to divert desperately needed supplies of masks and protective equipment, borders have been slammed closed and, of course, there is an increasingly dangerous “blame game” over responsibility for the spread of the virus.

“Vaccine nationalism” is a serious threat to the chances of achieving an effective global process for producing and equitably distributing vaccines.

As governments and medical systems intensify efforts to find medicines to treat those infected and vaccines to immunise whole populations, this divisiveness could become even more intense and dangerous. Some have suggested what we have so far witnessed will come to be seen as a sideshow in the race to get preventatives and cures.

As scientists warn that the “war” will only be won by an effective vaccine against Covid-19, a vast international mobilisation of scientific research and testing is underway to find that vaccine. Well over 100 vaccine projects have joined the race to find the “magic bullet”.

But just as the initial unseemly international rush to gain an advantage in the provision of first line of defences against the virus has revealed a divided world without coordination or leadership, the same dynamics are emerging around the search for vaccines.

Most seriously, the quest to be the first to produce a vaccine has opened a new front in the evolving cold war between the United States and China. Both superpowers are pouring huge resources into vaccine research, in quest of being able to pronounce the first successful vaccine as a triumph for their political system. Already it is a dirty game.

Accusations of spying and cyber tricks are already flying.

US President Donald Trump speaking at a White House press briefing on Covid-19 vaccine development, Washington, 15 May (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

On 13 May, the FBI and the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency announced that it was investigating the “targeting and compromise” of US medical research groups by Chinese hackers.

“These actors have been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property and public health data related to vaccines, treatments and testing,” the agencies warned. They urged extreme vigilance by US pharmaceutical and research sectors. UK security agencies issued a similar warning.

Australia’s official security agencies are likewise understood to have seen evidence of significant state-linked cyber activity targeting research institutions and the agencies have stepped up efforts to protect Australian organisations.

Australian researchers at the University of Queensland, the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and the CSIRO are jointly involved in one of the leading vaccine prospects.

It is not just the superpowers that are involved in this cyber activity. Russia and Iran have been identified as sources of state-directed cyber snooping, as have a host of non-government players.

But it is the US-China rivalry and the risk that vaccines may become geopolitical weapons that most worries health professionals and policymakers in the rest of the world.

Researchers at Peking University’s Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Genomics conduct tests on an anti-Covid-19 drug, 14 May (Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images)

“Vaccine nationalism”, warns Jane Halton, the Australian chair of the major international body seeking to bring order to the global search to find vaccines, is a serious threat to the chances of achieving an effective global process for producing and equitably distributing vaccines.

Halton chairs the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), a World Health Organisation (WHO) associated body charged with leading the search for and, ultimately, the global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

"If we have vaccine nationalism and one country looks after itself first, and at the expense of the rest of the world, everyone is going to continue to suffer," Halton said this week in an address to the National Press Club.

While Halton did not name any countries, my own discussions with people involved in the quest for a multilateral approach to vaccination development have revealed their alarm over the risk that the US and China will disastrously politicise the process.

Trump’s Operation Warp Speed – his direction to US researchers to produce a vaccine by the end of the year – is being seen as a Covid-19 extension of his “America First” political agenda. There is an expectation in international organisations that Trump will want to vaccinate Americans first with an American vaccine, and that he desperately wants a vaccine before the US Presidential election which he could boast as a victory over China.

But if China “wins the race”, there is concern that it could use the offer of vaccines to desperate governments as an instrument for gaining wider global influence.

Those involved in trying to ensure that the first vaccines that emerge are treated as “global public good” products are concerned that the retreat from multilateralism that has occurred in recent years will be bad news for those in less wealthy countries without the possibility of developing their own vaccines.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus holds a video briefing on the Covid-19 pandemic, Geneva, 15 April (Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo)

“It’s a very bad time for multilateralism to be under siege,” a former adviser to US presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama told the Financial Times. “But it’s the most dramatic example of why multilateralism is absolutely essential. A global plan without some of the main powers is not a global plan.”

But few involved in the international diplomacy aimed at trying to encourage a multilateral vaccine response see much chance of it, especially with Trump freezing US funding to the WHO and now threatening to pull out of the organisation altogether.

In a sign of potential US intentions, US delegates to the WHO’s World Health Assembly in Geneva on 18 and 19 May refused to sign up to a proposed agreement by all countries to permit poorer countries to ignore patents to gain access to successful Covid-19 vaccines. The US argued that this would remove the financial incentives for corporations to make the risky and expensive investments required to produce vaccines.

Acting on Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” direction to US agencies and pharmaceutical corporations, the publicly funded US Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) has been negotiating with up to 14 US and foreign drug companies for agreements to supply vaccines to the US. One of those being funded by BARDA is French company Sanofi, whose CEO got into political trouble with the French government when he said the US would have the right to have priority for any vaccine Sanofi developed with US financial assistance.

Other countries, including the UK, have negotiated deals with drug companies to get priority access to their vaccines.

The European Union, which is leading efforts to ensure wide access to proven vaccines, trailed behind the US and China in providing funds for vaccine development. It has now launched what is called the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which is funded by the EU, individual governments and philanthropic groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Through the ACT Accelerator, the Jane Halton–chaired CEPI is seeking agreements with potential vaccine providers on a “global public good” basis, with the goal of global vaccine provision. The highly prospective University of Queensland/CSIRO/Peter Doherty Institute “molecular clamp technology” vaccine project is one of these.

Officials involved in the effort to avoid a repeat of the experience of the development of swine flu (H1N1) pandemic in 2009, when wealthier countries – including Australia – monopolised the initial global vaccine supply, believe that the best chance of avoiding that happening with Covid-19 is uncertainty about the science for a vaccine. They say that it will be highly risky for the US and China to rush to try to be first and find that they don’t “win the race”. It would be more prudent for them to be part of wider efforts to develop a vaccine, something at least China pledged to do when it committed recently to provide $US2 billion to international counter-Covid projects.

A rapid emergency supplies program provides food for vulnerable households affected by Covid-19 in Manila, Philippines, 6 April (ADB/Flickr)

A measure of the willingness of the big powers to come together in the “war” against Covid-19 will come at the next G7 leaders’ summit, scheduled for 11 and 12 June, which is to be chaired by Trump and may involve leaders travelling to Washington instead of, as had been planned, being an online virtual meeting. A hook-up with other leaders in the G20 is also possible, which would see Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison participating.

Australia, which took a leading and controversial role in the mobilisation of support for an international inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 virus, has so far not played a role in efforts to ensure an equitable global distribution of any Covid-19 vaccine. This has invariably led some observers to wonder if Australia may choose to seek, through its alliance with the US, to ensure it gets priority access to a vaccine.

Ahead of the G7 summit, in an article published in Journal of the American Medical Association, leading US health and foreign policy experts laid down a challenge to world leaders:

If nations pursue a competitive race to develop effective vaccines and therapeutics, there will be only losers, no winners. The threat posed by the novel coronavirus knows no borders. Only a well-coordinated global plan that harnesses the best science and delivers it to everyone in need can effectively counteract the Covid-19 scourge and future pandemics.

Now is the right time to bring Fiji into trans-Pacific bubble talks

Before the break: The 2016 Fiji Pro at Cloudbreak (Ed Sloane/World Surf League via Getty Images)
Before the break: The 2016 Fiji Pro at Cloudbreak (Ed Sloane/World Surf League via Getty Images)
Published 21 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

It’s peak surf season in Fiji. Usually surfers would come from all over the world to surf the famous “Cloudbreak” and holiday resorts should be packed. But Rendezvous Surf Camp, the launch pad to some of Fiji’s best breaks, excepting four guests, is empty.

One night this week, sitting around drinking kava with the staff (with appropriate social distancing), they fondly recalled years gone by when famous surfers cracked beers at the now deserted bar.

Sun, sand, no tourists: an empty Fiji resort (Samantha Cook)

Some locals have taken a “sega na lega” (no worries) approach. With coronavirus restrictions somewhat relaxed and inter-island travel having resumed, many Fijians have taken the opportunity to relax or return to their villages and undertake subsistence farming.

But living off the land won’t pay the rent or meet credit repayments. There is a growing feeling of uncertainty permeating the tropical air. While the Fiji government has implemented measures to soften the blow of Covid-19, there will still be a strain.

I’m regularly asked by locals about when flights will resume with Australia, as though I have ScoMo on speed dial.

With so many Fijians dependent on the tourism industry, which makes up about 40% of Fiji’s GDP, locals are growing anxious. Already the pinch is being felt.

Australian, New Zealand and Fijian government representatives have met to discuss ways the countries can cooperate to jump-start Fiji’s economy. But pre-Covid these discussions had already started with talks of diversifying Fiji’s economy by strengthening incentives and market access in the agriculture and business outsourcing sectors. While coronavirus has been responsible for instigating technology transformation in businesses through forced working from home arrangements, I’m doubtful as to whether the experience of the virus can trigger economic diversification at the rate needed to reboot Fiji’s economy. 

In 2019 Fiji was ranked 102 out of 190 in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index. The country is also geographically remote and battles climate change-related challenges, which all present significant barriers to achieving rapid economic transformation.

There seems to be little option available but to restart Fiji’s tourism industry. One safe and measured way of doing that is through Fiji’s inclusion in the mooted trans-Pacific bubble.

For inbound tourism, pre-departure screenings, the compulsory use of contact tracing apps by tourists, as well as designated tourism zones in Fiji, could be employed to reduce the risk.

Annually Fiji receives around half a million tourists from Australia and New Zealand who make up around 65% of total tourist numbers. So by reintroducing flights from Australia and New Zealand, undoubtedly the Fijian tourism industry would see an immediate uptick.

Fiji has been very diligent in its Covid-19 prevention efforts. With now only three active cases, the country may soon be coronavirus free, meaning the real risk is a second wave of infection brought from Australia or New Zealand.

Aside from public health concerns, there is of course a diplomatic and PR risk, as neither Australia nor New Zealand want to be responsible for reintroducing coronavirus to the islands.

Fiji has formally expressed its desire to be a part of the trans-Pacific bubble and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said inclusion of the Pacific Islands is “on the cards”. However, Ardern has stressed the importance for Australia and New Zealand to get their health response right first, and to have agreement and support of the Pacific.

But just how long must the Pacific wait? What tangible strategies can Australia and New Zealand feasibly think about now to start implementing for Fiji to be included?

For inbound tourism, pre-departure screenings, the compulsory use of contact tracing apps by tourists, as well as designated tourism zones in Fiji, could be employed to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Further, the traffic needs to flow both ways. Given the importance of remittances, its vital for governments to consider how seasonal workers can return to Australia and New Zealand. Governments might also explore opportunities to increase the number of participants in Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme in areas, which could experience greater demand, for example healthcare, childcare as well as aged care.

As the Covid-19 crisis began in Wuhan late last year, much of the world sat back idly, feeling immune and labelling it a ‘China problem’. Fast forward to March this year and coronavirus quickly became a global problem, with governments calling home their citizens, including expats, many of whom had less than 48 hours to leave. The decisions felt very “reactive” to what are admittedly unprecedented events.

The one lesson already clear from the Covid-19 response is the importance of preparedness among friends. More intra-Pacific dialogue about Fiji’s inclusion in the bubble should occur now, rather than leaving the Pacific as an after-thought. As some of the biggest aid donors in the region, Australia and New Zealand cannot afford to be reactive in their efforts to assist Fiji and other countries in the Pacific on the road to economic recovery.

India’s Covid-19 tracing app: Power in the right hands?

India’s Covid-19 tracing app Aarogya Setu was the seventh most downloaded app worldwide in April (Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
India’s Covid-19 tracing app Aarogya Setu was the seventh most downloaded app worldwide in April (Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 20 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Governments around the world are working hard to convince their populations to download the various Covid-19 infection tracing apps. As well as potentially helping to stymie the spread of the virus, the app download numbers serve another purpose: they could be read to indicate how much trust there is in government. With the apps containing potentially sensitive personal data about millions of people, it comes as little surprise that there is growing concern over privacy and how this data will be used, post-pandemic.

In Australia, the COVIDSafe app has been downloaded, according to the most recent figures, almost six million times. That number, while large, falls far short of the government’s desired 40% of the population. It’s an indication that, for all of the recent opinion polls showing high approval ratings for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, there still isn’t much public faith in the government to ring-fence the data.

Conversely, in India, the tracing app Aarogya Setu (“bridge to health”) has been downloaded more than 100 million times and was the seventh most downloaded app worldwide in April (less than TikTok, but more than Netflix). Even in a country of 450 million smartphones, it is significant. Authorities are also releasing a version of the app that works on the next 100 million mobile phones that are internet-enabled. The figures underscore Modi’s ongoing popularity and the public trust in his governance.



Still, there has been significant disquiet over the app’s features, which critics say undermines Indians’ privacy. The great fear is that the Indian government is using the pandemic and the app as cover for scaling up its moves towards becoming a surveillance state. The government announced it was mandatory for all state employees to download it. It has been made compulsory in a number of other settings, including throughout Noida, a satellite city to New Delhi, and for rural migrant workers travelling by train. No other democracy has made it mandatory for citizens to download the app.

Aarogya Setu, like most contact tracing apps, relies on Bluetooth. But it also uses GPS tracking, meaning that that each user’s location is tracked multiple times each day. Critics say this is unnecessary and excessive, and they fear that the app could be used to create permanent government databases with sensitive personal information about Indian citizens.

One of the voices is French ethical hacker Robert Baptiste, going by the moniker Elliott Alderson, who points out that the internal database is easily accessible, meaning anyone can see who is sick anywhere in India. He has called on the government to make the source code public, so independent researchers can fully understand the technology. 

Separately, an analysis of the app conducted by French cybersecurity consultancy Defensive Lab Agency found that it has the probable capacity to access other features on the smartphone on which it is installed, such as the microphone, contacts and system settings.

And a comparative review published by MIT Technology Review gave the app two out of five stars, losing points for lacking transparency and not being voluntary. (COVIDSafe rated four out of five stars, with concerns around its lack of transparency.)

Staying connected during a time of isolation (Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images) 

To its credit, the Indian government appears to be listening, issuing a rare Twitter rebuttal of Alderson’s claims, yet on Sunday backtracking on the mandatory download conditions, instead strongly urging employees and employers to take it up. While its moves towards a surveillance state have been well-documented, it appears the government has realised that now is perhaps not the best moment to try to exploit the public mood, even though fearful populations are generally happy to cede ground on privacy and liberty in favour of safety.

There is genuine cause for concern, given that India’s moves towards building a surveillance infrastructure did not begin with Aarogya Setu.

While another chief complaint, that of India’s lack of data privacy legislation is also being addressed with a bill awaiting approval in parliament, there is genuine cause for concern, given that India’s moves towards building a surveillance infrastructure did not begin with Aarogya Setu.

Five years ago, the Aadhar number was introduced, a program which gave each citizen a unique 12-digit number that the government said would streamline bureaucracy and ultimately help poor people access welfare. But the Supreme Court in 2018 placed strict limits on the use of the program, in response to growing public concerns over privacy and whether the data was being used correctly. 

More recently, the Modi government has been finalising a database tracking “every aspect of the lives of each of India’s 1.2 billion residents”. According to a report in Huffington Post India in March, the so-called National Social Registry would track every time someone moved cities, changed jobs, bought property or even lost a family member. While authorities have claimed that the NSR would “ensure greater administrative convenience by converging resources and efforts”, deep concerns about privacy abound. Opponents say the data collated could be used to target specific communities, and even individuals. And yes, the database (or integrated set of databases) would be based on the Aadhar number, drawing a line between the two.

With this in mind, now is a good time for Indians to remain vigilant: after all, India’s legacy of using emergencies to invoke special powers does have a dark past.

Covid-19: The need to aid Asia to open up

Jakarta, Indonesia (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Jakarta, Indonesia (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)
Published 20 May 2020 06:00   1 Comments

Two things about the public health and economic impacts of Covid-19 are now clear.

First, with just a few exceptions, most affected countries have suffered egregiously, and in many cases unnecessarily. This is a tragic situation.

Second, the response has been mainly left to the national governments and citizens of individual countries.

Sadly, at the international level, the response has been weak – much weaker than what is required. The urgent need now is for multilateral organisations and wealthy nations to respond with coordinated aid programs. The aid should go towards improving both public health and economic conditions in the affected countries. This applies to Asia in particular.

One example from Asia will suffice for now.

Bangladesh has had a good development record over a few decades. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has compared the socio-economic development of Bangladesh favourably with other South Asian countries, including India. Yet the international aid package for Bangladesh to fight the current crisis has been small and has moved slowly.

Bangladesh is severely resource constrained and can only afford to spend US$12 per capita for health. Only $4 per capita can go towards public health programs. Rapid mobilisation of international aid is now vital.

Sadarghat terminal in Dhaka (Asian Development Bank/Flickr)

The country has a national emergency response plan, but mobilising resources for the plan and proper targeting will require both bilateral and multilateral assistance to reach the government and non-governmental organisations quickly. One of us has calculated – using the best available data – that a further package of at least $4 billion will be needed in order to stem the downward slide and restore a reasonable rate of economic growth.

The example of Bangladesh shows that large economic responses are needed from the international community. Urgent funding for humanitarian priorities is required as well. The detection, over the past few days, of Covid-19 in the huge Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar is an alarming development. The likelihood that the virus will now quickly spread poses grave risks both for the one million Rohingya refugees in the camp as well as for the wider Bangladesh community nearby. Developing countries in Asia are struggling to cope with widespread impacts of the crisis such as this as well as instability across international financial markets.

Networks related to rapid globalisation make it impossible to isolate one country from the rest of the world.

Strikingly, almost no Western donor country has shown interest in providing significant support to developing countries in Asia. Rich countries are unleashing staggering levels of resources to deal with problems inside their borders while most developing countries are hopelessly ill-equipped to cope.

For Western donor countries, this is not their finest hour. This collective response of Western nations sends a powerful message to developing countries ­– this time, you are on your own. The corollary is that Asian countries should look to expand their own forms of regional cooperation.

We can see from the rapid transmission of the virus across international borders that numerous key linkages now exist across the world. For example, trade and transportation networks, financial networks, and other networks related to rapid globalisation make it impossible to isolate one country from the rest of the world. We can pull up the drawbridges for a time but at some stage we will need to start lowering them again. It will be hard to know when to start doing this and which drawbridges to lower first.

Nevertheless, it is urgent to reopen economies as soon as possible. One of the most important global lessons of post-Second World War economic history is that openness is a key factor spurring growth.

In 2008, in a major report on international economic issues, the World Bank’s Commission on Growth and Development pointed to the importance of openness. Surveying the experiences of 13 high-growth economies since 1950, the Commission concluded that the essential shared characteristic and “the central lesson of this report” was that “during their periods of fast growth, these 13 economies all made the most of the global economy”.

Sustained growth, the Commission said:

was not possible before 1950. It became feasible only because the world economy became more open and more tightly integrated.

The past two months has seen an unprecedented array of barriers erected across the world, especially in wealthy countries. It is to be expected, of course, that governments will move to protect their citizens – but it is inevitable that much of the protection is also highly protectionist.

The danger now is that wealthy countries will become inward-looking. Countries such as Bangladesh will find that vital opportunities to grow their way out of the Covid-19 crisis are denied to them. Yet they will need continued access to international markets to pursue the export-oriented growth strategies that have been so successful in the past.

Thinking optimistically, we can hope that when the worst of the current crisis has passed, there will be much needed discussion about reforms needed in global and regional relationships.

But the global and regional international organisations and wealthy countries have a largely unmet responsibility to act quickly. They must move now so that channels of cooperation can be preserved even in the face of crisis today.

Covid-19 chaos creates fertile ground for cyberattacks

A phishing email from someone posing as the head of the World Health Organisation asking recipients to donate money to a coronavirus fund, received in London (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
A phishing email from someone posing as the head of the World Health Organisation asking recipients to donate money to a coronavirus fund, received in London (Photo by Yui Mok/PA Images via Getty Images)
Published 19 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

Coronavirus-related cyberattacks have proliferated since the first Covid-19 cases emerged in Wuhan, China. According to a recent Microsoft analysis, every country in the world has now experienced at least one such cyberattack, with the number of successful intrusions increasing daily. In a heightened state of confusion and stress, security gaps stemming from human vulnerabilities, such as email scams and unmonitored malware intrusions, have inevitably escalated.

A variety of tactics and techniques have been observed. Attacks have ranged from unsolicited bulk spam emails aiming to spread disinformation or instigate scams, malicious domain names resembling legitimate sources, mobile apps that can be used for eavesdropping, or phishing attempts to steal private information. Sometimes, these techniques are used in conjunction with malware embedded within interactive Covid-19 maps, or ransomware that encrypts and prevents the use of a system until a payment is received.

While most coronavirus-related cyberattacks amount to mere annoyances, others have had serious consequences.

Such cyberattacks are not unique to this pandemic ­– capitalising on human vulnerabilities, particularly during major events, is a fundamental aspect of cyber threats. Malicious actors commonly use social engineering techniques to manipulate individuals to do something against their best interests. For example, phishing attacks have sought to take advantage of job duties (“Please read attached COVID-19 guidelines”), or even financial needs (“Click this link to view our FREE financial support guide”). Such vulnerabilities can also be exacerbated by a lack of adequate guidance from employers, especially at a time when oversight may be reduced due to staff and operational reductions, or during a rapid transition to remote working.

While most coronavirus-related cyberattacks amount to mere annoyances, others have had serious consequences. Essential services, including the healthcare sector, have become prime targets. The Brno University Hospital, a Covid-19 testing laboratory in the Czech Republic, was a victim of ransomware cyberattacks. In the US, multiple cyberattacks on pharmaceutical and medical research organisations compromised corporate networks through their supply chains.

Hackers have also quickly followed the shift towards remote technology, with multiple security flaws being exploited within remote-work application Zoom, creating surveillance and data privacy concerns. Amid the growing economic fallout from coronavirus, social security services have also been successfully hacked, such as those in Italy, illustrating the ability of malicous actors to rapidly adapt to the changing landscape.


While the motiviation is often criminal, sometimes, it can reflect geopolitical intent. Various state-sponsored “Advanced Persistent Threat” (APT) groups have been observed in attempts to exploit the pandemic to disrupt operations, steal intellectual property, and gather intelligence. Multiple phishing and spam cyberattacks against organisations in Ukraine, South Korea, and Vietnam were shown to have traces of state-sponsored APT groups from Russia, North Korea, and China respectively. Some APT groups have also sought to specifically target government services. For example, Vicious Panda, an allegedly Chinese-affiliated cyberespionage campaign by the Calypso Group, sent documents containing the RoyalRoad malware to individuals in the Mongolian public sector, masquarading as the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs disseminating information about Covid-19. Such malware would have allowed them to take screen shots, execute new processes, and collect system information as part of a suspected broader intelligence operation against a variety of other governments and organisations.

Several implications can be drawn from patterns in such cyberattacks. State-sponsored APT groups have predominantly focused on targeting organisations and governments in their regional spheres of influence, despite some having an international portfolio of operations. Essential services should expect to continue to be a target of coronavirus-related cyberattacks. Along with the healthcare scctor, financial services and industries that provide manufacturing, logistics, and cloud integration platforms could face an intensification of attacks on related supply chains as they become increasingly vital in a pandemic environment. This is especially worrisome considering cyberthreat reports before the pandemic had already pointed to the likely escalation of cyberattacks on similar sectors.

Furthermore, irrespective of any ethical boundaries which might be expected during a pandemic, hackers have had no compunction in flouting international cyber regulations, subsequently overwhelming enforcement capabilities. This amounts to a further warning with elections forthcoming in the US, Singapore, Hong Kong, and elsewhere of the lengths to which state-sponsored APT groups might use cyberattacks during major political events to influence and/or infiltrate foreign societies and governments.

It can also be expected that disinformation campaigns will intensify amid the current coronavirus-related “infodemic”. A recent Fireeye report found that many Covid-19–related themes aimed at Russian or Ukrainian audiences were in fact part of “Sekondary Infection,” a Russia-based disinformation operation. In some cases, efforts in manipulating social narratives are supported by cyberattacks, to reinforce political positions domestically and abroad – while others could also simply result from questionable decision-making, elevating unconfirmed rumours and circulating inaccurate information. Concurrently, by fostering chaos in social discourse, malicious actors capitalise on the environment of confusion, indirectly enhancing the effectiveness of cyberattacks while damaging mitigation efforts.

Effectively countering cyberattacks that leverage off similar major events requires preparedness and adaptability from the targeted organisation. It is crucial to understand that the primary vulnerability is people themselves, as gatekeepers to the security of any systems. The imperative for key decision makers is therefore to integrate the human aspect of cybersecurity into risk management frameworks, for the time of Covid-19, and beyond.

PNG and Covid-19: The costs of economic stress

Enga Province, Western Highlands, PNG (gailhampshire/Flickr)
Enga Province, Western Highlands, PNG (gailhampshire/Flickr)
Published 19 May 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Papua New Guinea has grappled with economic instability for years, exacerbated by generally declining global commodity prices, increasing national debt and allegations of fiscal mismanagement. None of this is helped by high rates of population growth and unemployment. Now the coronavirus pandemic will deliver a further blow to the nation’s extractive economy as the world enters a recession and demand for resources drops.

Health-wise, the Pacific Island state is one of the more fortunate countries, so far, with only a handful of confirmed Covid-19 cases and no fatalities.

But the resource dependence which PNG has promoted since independence won’t be a strength. The returns of the sector, already associated with poor job creation and failure to drive inclusive development, will further diminish. Before the virus outbreak, resources contributed 29% to the country’s GDP, and more than and 10% of government revenues. But in recent years volatile world markets and too much spending in advance of revenue delivery, leading to mounting debt, have significantly wiped out the anticipated benefits for development. A sovereign wealth fund intended to secure long-term revenue savings is not yet operational.

The government was planning record expenditure this year. Yet the Covid-19 outbreak has now left a glaring 2 billion kina (A$890 million) budget shortfall and national debt could surpass 40% of GDP by the end of the year. Meanwhile the country’s growth is forecast to decline to -0.2% this year.

This, as well as the state of emergency provisions, will affect the nation’s 8.6 million people, of whom about 40% already live below the poverty line.

Port Moresby, PNG (gailhampshire/Flickr)

Local PNG economist, Busa Jeremiah Wenogo, has long advocated the development of small and medium enterprises and the informal economy in PNG to boost sustainable livelihoods. But he has warned that social distancing and banning of gatherings places “almost 80 percent of our nation’s workforce in the informal economy in a dire situation”.

Likewise, in a recent interview Paul Barker from PNG’s Institute of National Affairs identified the vulnerability of those with greater dependence upon cash crops for their livelihoods. “[People] living in areas of higher population density, including on oil palm settlement schemes [have] little, if any, land set aside for food production,” Barker told me.

In rural communities, where more than 80% of people reside, subsistence agriculture on customary-owned land remains the bedrock of household self-sufficiency and this will go a long way to maintaining rural food security. The country’s customary or traditional governance also plays an important role in local-level resilience. In times of great need, many families and communities instinctively turn to their head of clan or village chief for direction and support, rather than politicians. It’s likely such coping strategies will come to the fore during the weeks and months ahead.

However, in more crowded urban centres, where people don’t have the same access to land or social support structures, loss of incomes and poor food security could lead to a rise in crime.

Nothing incenses Papua New Guineans more than the suspicion or knowledge that their lives are stricken by hardship because of high-level corruption.

Large-scale violence or conflict is a different scenario. In PNG’s post-Independence history, apart from tribal warfare, this has been mostly connected with local grievances about the nature of foreign involvement in the economy. The most obvious and deadly example was the Bougainville civil war (1989-1998), triggered by anger over environmental damage and inequity associated with the then foreign-owned Panguna copper mine. More recently, landowner grievances about the Exxon Mobil co-venture, PNG LNG, and the Barrick Gold majority-owned Porgera gold mine in the highlands have resulted in violent skirmishes.

Having witnessed decades of under-development alongside massive resource projects, there is nothing that incenses Papua New Guineans more than the suspicion or knowledge that their lives are stricken by hardship because of high-level corruption. A special grevience is the idea of foreign companies taking the land’s wealth and at the same time leaving them poorer. For most citizens, there is a difference between suffering and hardship which has a comprehensible cause and that which is the result of social injustice.

Despite Covid-19 placing an enormous strain on our Pacific neighbour, Barker’s assessment appears sound, that “there should be no reason for chaos or PNG turning into a failed state, although many of its institutions can long be deemed as failing, or severely deficient.”

And though it is too early to judge, further political strength may come from Prime Minister James Marape, who came to power last year. Maraphe has adopted a more assertive stance with foreign investors in resource projects, claiming to better represent his nation’s interests. The emergence of Covid-19 coincided with Marape’s attempt to end Barrick Gold’s involvement in the Porgera mine and amend the terms of the proposed P’nyang gas extension project agreement with Exxon Mobil. Despite the courts ordering the government back to negotiations with Barrick Gold, Marape’s approach is what locals have demanded for a long time. The security and “trust” environment for foreign investors won’t improve unless Papua New Guineans see better returns.

PNG is still ranked a nation of “low human development”: life expectancy is 64 years, barely a quarter of the population have access to reliably mains electricity, and just over half of people in urban areas have improved sanitation (in rural areas, this the rate is less than 15%).

So the pandemic, if anything, highlights the urgency of maintaining a focus on diversifying the nation’s economy to better ride global events and uncertain world markets. Diversification became a core part of the government’s budget policy two years ago. Before the coronavirus outbreak, public expenditure was tuned to stimulating agriculture and the private sector, alongside investment in infrastructure and services, such as roads, power, and digital connectivity.

The government is making cautious moves to lift some of the internal lockdown restrictions. This will lead to improved conditions for the local economy. But it will be important, in carrying the country through this crisis and preserving stability, to not lose sight at the national level of the long-term needs, such as rigorous fiscal management, and more diversified and resilient employment for millions of Papua New Guineans.

Covid-19 is not the biggest threat to UN peacekeeping

UN Peacekeepers from Morocco patrol a village in North Kivu province, Democratic Republlic of Congo, 9 May 2020 (MONUSCO Photos/Flickr)
UN Peacekeepers from Morocco patrol a village in North Kivu province, Democratic Republlic of Congo, 9 May 2020 (MONUSCO Photos/Flickr)
Published 18 May 2020 17:00   0 Comments

Last year, the UN estimated that 168 million people depended on humanitarian relief as a result of conflict, violence, and disasters, and peacekeepers were deployed to 13 countries to help conflict-affected societies navigate the often-bumpy road from violence towards peace. Covid-19 has already exacerbated global humanitarian needs, and will have particularly dire consequences in displaced populations and refugee camps, and in conflict and post-conflict zones, where health systems and essential services are weak, if they exist at all.

Moreover, the pandemic may lead to the escalation of violent conflict: although Covid-19 has pushed some armed groups towards ceasefires, in other places violence has intensified, or threatens to, as the pandemic draws the world’s attention. This trend is likely to continue as countries turn inward to deal with the virus’ effects on their own populations and economies. Thus, at a time when there may be fewer resources for peacekeeping, it may be in greatest demand.

However, while Covid-19 will amplify existing challenges to peacekeeping effectiveness and global perceptions of legitimacy, it is not the biggest threat to the future of peacekeeping. At the heart of these challenges lies the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by peacekeepers.

That some officials see sexual misconduct as a peripheral concern has meant that the structural and resourcing challenges are, in some missions, compounded by a lack of political will to address misconduct proactively.

This year, data released by the UN showed that allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers in 2019 were 43% higher than in 2018. This is not particularly surprising: every year or so, allegations of sexual misconduct by peacekeepers ricochet around global media, shocking international audiences and leading to heartfelt statements about how such abuses will not be tolerated.

And yet, the abuses continue.

Why? At the core of the answer is the fact that the effects of sexual exploitation and abuse on peacekeeping outcomes are poorly understood and highly underestimated, as my recent book illustrated, drawing on interviews with diplomats, policymakers, peacekeepers, and others associated with peace operations. This has meant that many officials and personnel treat such misconduct as a relatively minor code of conduct issue, rather than one that strikes at the heart of peacekeeping effectiveness. Policy responses have been hamstrung and under-resourced as a result.

Research has shown how sexual exploitation affects the perceived impartiality of peace operations and contributes to the long-term entrenchment of transactional sex economies. My research, based on extensive fieldwork in Bosnia and Timor-Leste, has further documented how sexual misconduct by international interveners undermines the outcomes of individual peace operations on multiple levels.

The central goals of UN peacekeeping are five-fold: to protect civilians from armed conflict; to prevent conflicts in order to reduce human suffering and build stable and prosperous societies; to strengthen rule of law and security institutions; to protect and promote human rights; and to empower women to participate in peace processes. Sexual exploitation and abuse critically undermines each of these goals.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres briefs the Security Council on Women and peace and security, 29 October 2019 (Ryan Brown/UN Women/Flickr)

On the individual and community level, it compounds human rights abuses and poverty experienced by already vulnerable communities, sometimes resulting in victims (and children born of abuse) being thrown out of families and communities as a result of the stigma associated with sexual violence or exploitation. It contributes to the spread of sexually transmitted infections, puts women and children involved at risk of further abuses by police if they report their experiences, and often traps victims in cycles of abuse. It also leads to communities being less willing to “allow” women to work with international organisations and missions, for fear that they will be exploited in exchange for their jobs.

On the structural level, sexual misconduct by peacekeepers normalises sexually exploitative and abusive behaviours in post-conflict societies and institutionalises impunity for such behaviours in host-state security sectors, which peacekeepers train and mentor. It also does so among peacekeepers themselves, who export these behaviours (and impunity for them) into subsequent deployments. And it creates economies of sexual exploitation that long outlast the presence of peacekeepers, as business models adapt towards, for instance, sex trafficking and sex tourism, after peacekeepers leave.

And on the operational level, it undermines peacekeeping outcomes by diverting resources available for vital human rights and gender work towards sexual exploitation and abuse responses, seeding mistrust of interveners amongst local communities (the trust of local communities is a critical factor in peacekeeping effectiveness), and diminishing the confidence interveners themselves have in their organisation and in the international peacekeeping project. People I interviewed also recounted stories of how sexual exploitation and abuse by particular contingents within a peace operation made peacekeepers the targets of violence by local actors, and led to outright conflict with other contingents, as was the case when Australian and Jordanian peacekeepers came to blows in Timor-Leste.

These outcomes clearly undermine UN mandates around human rights, rule of law, and civilian protection, which peacekeeping doctrine holds as foundational to the establishment of lasting peace.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (left) at a rehabilitation centre for victims of sexual violence and torture in Ituri province, Democratic Republic of Congo, 24 January 2020 (MONUSCO Photos/Flickr)

Perhaps most critically, when peacekeepers perpetrate sexual exploitation and abuse, they contribute to a deepening of the legitimacy crisis currently facing UN peacekeeping, and the UN more broadly. The UN relies on the commitment of its staff, member states, and the general public internationally to continue its work, and yet unchecked patterns of sexual misconduct lead to staff attrition, decreased funding, mistrust between member states, and they bolster those who seek to limit their country’s participation in peacekeeping.

A great challenge facing the UN in this regard is its structure: while the Secretariat has devoted significant resources to strengthening policy and accountability mechanisms, the actual responsibility for investigating and punishing misconduct by uniformed personnel falls to member states, some of whom are less willing or able to do so than others. Moreover, with ever-increasing pressure on the UN peacekeeping budget, mission leadership is forced to make difficult choices about how to distribute resources between what are considered “core security functions” and work that address issues of gender and sexual exploitation and abuse. That some officials see sexual misconduct as a peripheral concern has meant that the structural and resourcing challenges are, in some missions, compounded by a lack of political will to address misconduct proactively.

At a time when the UN’s work is more vital than ever, and when resourcing that work will likely be harder than ever, it is critical that threats its capacity and credibility are addressed. This means taking sexual exploitation and abuse seriously as an issue that strikes at the heart of the UN’s effectiveness in peacekeeping, and leveraging political will and resources to prevent misconduct more effectively and hold perpetrators accountable.

The false dichotomy at the heart of Australia’s China debate

Reception celebrating Australia-China ties at the Australian Ambassador’s residence, Beijing, 1 August 2019 (DFAT/Flickr)
Reception celebrating Australia-China ties at the Australian Ambassador’s residence, Beijing, 1 August 2019 (DFAT/Flickr)
Published 18 May 2020 12:00   1 Comments

A new narrative, advanced by the “wolverines” and like-minded commentators, is emerging and solidifying within Australia’s China “debate”. This narrative casts disliked Chinese policies as attacks on Australian sovereignty, and thus any problem in the bilateral relationship is instantly elevated in significance. If making concessions compromises Australian sovereignty, then only one policy – standing firm – is ever viable. Some argue that the only way to preserve Australian sovereignty in the longer term is to reduce trade dependence on China: maintain sovereignty and anger China, or take their money and “surrender”.

The primary problem with this narrative is its misconception of sovereignty. Sovereignty is the ability of a nation-state to govern itself and control the use of force within its borders. There is no doubt China attempts influence operations within Australia which, if successful, would undermine Australian sovereignty. Australia has – rightfully – responded forcefully to these efforts, though legislation targeting foreign interference, and Canberra should maintain these efforts in a low-key but dogged manner.

But it would be a grave mistake to regard every Chinese action which displeases Canberra – such as the current trade dispute – as an attack on Australian sovereignty. China has the ability to impose significant economic costs on Australia and will likely do so in response to Canberra’s decision to be the first state to call for an international inquiry into Covid-19. This is economic coercion, but it is not an attack on sovereignty. Australia still retains full agency in this matter: it could choose to double down on its advocacy, to hold the course, or to back down. Canberra can analyse each option and make its own decision. Any resulting unpleasant consequences are part of the rough-and-tumble of power politics on the global stage – not an attack on sovereignty.

If the wolverine narrative is embraced wholesale, then Australia will assess every Chinese action as an attack on sovereignty. It will discount or swiftly reject alternate explanations for Chinese behaviour.

This point is important, because narratives have immense power to influence decisions in ways that are often obvious only in retrospect. The “domino theory” made it difficult for US presidents to exercise restraint in Southeast Asia, because even small crises were thought to risk the fate of the entire region. The Vietnam War, and the immense human misery associated with it, was one result of this narrative. After 9/11, President Bush was convinced that the US was attacked because of its values rather than because of its policies in the Middle East.  When asked if Osama bin Laden had political goals, Bush replied that bin Laden “has got evil goals”. This “terror narrative” made subsequent mistakes, such as the 2003 Iraq War, more likely. Uncritical acceptance of flawed narratives can lead to foreign policy disasters.

If the wolverine narrative is embraced wholesale, then Australia will assess every Chinese action as an attack on sovereignty. It will discount or swiftly reject alternate explanations for Chinese behaviour. It will downplay, or refuse to accept, the prospect that Chinese decisions may be responses to its own actions, or those of its allies. (One Australian commentator recently observed that “China’s inflexible position is that all problems in the bilateral relationship are Australia’s fault” – although Australia tends to maintain the exact obverse position).

Any Australian challenging this narrative, or with business ties to China, will have their patriotism questioned and their honour impugned. In the end, Australia will come to regard China’s annoyance as smoking-gun proof that Australian policies are values-driven and thus do not require adjustment. This is a prescription for ever-deepening confrontation with Beijing, all while the leaders of Australia’s main ally lurch from one conspiracy theory to the next.

Worryingly, there are hints that Australia is starting to adopt the wolverine narrative. Prime Minister Morrison has asserted , “We are standing our ground on our values … And these are not things to be traded”. Such phrases suggest there are only two options: either (a) a truly Australian policy, to be the international community’s “first-mover” on a Covid-19 inquiry, or (b) an “un-Australian” policy of doing nothing. This is a false dilemma: a better policy would have been (c) to encourage Europe to take the lead, with Australia offering them support, rather than the other way around. This would likely have resulted in the same outcome, but without the same opportunity for self-congratulations, celebrating the defeat of China’s effort to “bully Australia into submission”.

Accordingly, it seems that Australia’s policy was motivated primarily by a desire to reassure decision-makers about Australia’s national character, rather than to secure an international inquiry while also protecting other interests. If the EU were likely to secure an inquiry even without Australia’s first-mover policy, then what has Australia actually achieved, other than risking economic pain? Every job lost and family hardship endured because of any subsequent economic coercion was entirely foreseeable and probably avoidable.

Whoever devised Australia’s first-mover policy is unknown, as are what deliberations occurred before the policy was announced. But it was an obviously foolish decision and an unforced error, resulting in unnecessary risk to Australia’s economic interests. It would be immature to celebrate it as a success simply because it angered Beijing. Australia needs to decide how many such “victories” it can afford, and whether the “wolverine” narrative is a force for wisdom or folly. 

Constitutional questions over Solomon Islands’ coronavirus crackdown

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (Robert Taupongi/AFP via Getty Images)
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare (Robert Taupongi/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 18 May 2020 10:00   0 Comments

On 25 March, following a government decision, the Solomon Islands Governor General Sir David Vunagi, declared a state of public emergency in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Solomon Islands remains one of a few countries worldwide that is still without a reported case of the novel coronavirus. The Emergency Powers (Covid-19) Regulations 2020 authorised Prime Minster Manasseh Sogavare to make orders to protect the country from the pandemic and to prevent the spread of virus if there were cases. A travel ban was imposed, stopping international flights (except cargo flights), and schools closed. The maritime border with Papua New Guinea between Shortland and Bougainville was also shutdown.

The government’s decision to invoke a state of emergency was widely accepted as necessary in order to protect the country from Covid-19. On the face of it, the decision was also in line with the constitution.

But there is now an urgent need to examine whether the government has politicised the state of emergency, and whether its behaviour really is constitutional after all.

The regulations give the PM the power to make orders to restrict the movement of people, vessels and aircrafts, restrict assembly, suspend the media and declare a public place as emergency zone. These restrictions could infringe people’s fundamental rights, such as the right to movement, free association and freedom of expression as provided for by the constitution.

The current government’s position is that the Covid-19 Regulations restrict the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution. However, such restriction is not absolute. As stated under section 16(7) of the constitution:

Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of the [fundamental rights provisions under the constitution] to the extent that the law in question makes in relation to any period of public emergency provision, or authorises the doing during any such period of any thing, that is reasonably justifiable in circumstances of any situation arising or existing during the period for the purpose of dealing with that situation.

The High Court of Solomon Islands in Douglas v Attorney General [1999] SBHC 147 explained section 16(7) as follows: “If anything contained in or done under the authority of any law, enacted pursuant to the state of public emergency, is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in the circumstances etc., it may be deemed unconstitutional and invalid.”

The key point is the idea that restrictions on fundamental rights must be “reasonably justifiable … for the purpose of dealing with that situation”.

Recent events raise serious questions about what is reasonable, and whether the government’s actions are focused foremost on dealing with the pandemic.

The question therefore must be “what is reasonably justifiable” for the purpose of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic – which is the situation for which the state of public emergency was invoked. Recent events raise serious questions about what is reasonable, and whether the government’s actions are focused foremost on dealing with the pandemic.

An example is questions about logging production around the country and phosphate mining in Rennell, which has continued, including with overseas shipments, despite the declaration to keep borders closed. The Bulk Carrier Vessel MV Worship Light was cleared by customs to offload cargo near Honiara despite earlier allegedly violating “international and domestic maritime regulations”. The Western Province Premier, David Lani Gina also questioned why another container ship was allowed to dock at Noro without undergoing a 14-day quarantine as required by the Covid-19 regulations. These are instances of not applying the regulations with potential to undermine the purpose of preventing the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

Other cases have also raised questions about what could be “reasonably justified” as related to preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Claude Posala, a senior medical officer who was outspoken on health issues, lost his job on 6 April for having allegedly breached regulation 26 because his social media posts were purportedly “inflammatory against the government”.

More recently, the national government threatened to suspend the Malaita Provincial Government (MPG) because the province’s Premier, Daniel Suidani was allegedly making statements against the government’s efforts to fight against Covid-19. This included cautioning the government about obtaining Covid-19 equipment from China. Suidani had earlier drawn the ire of the national government for opposing the diplomatic switch to China last year, yet he has described the latest threats as unsubstantiated and based on misinterpretations of the law.

After the opposition leader Matthew Wale cautioned the government not to suspend the MPG “at a time when unity is needed”, the government responded claiming that Wale’s statement was intended to “create disharmony” and “provoke animosity against the government during [the] state of emergency period.” The government said Wale “would be referred to the police for breaching Covid-19 emergency measures”.

Such instances suggest the government has politicised the state of emergency, using the powers to marginalise anyone questioning its decisions, while also being selective in its application and enforcement of the regulations. The Covid-19 regulations, on their face, are constitutionally sound, and may allow for orders that may restrict fundamental rights. Yet the application and enforcement still has to be constitutional, which in this case means applying the law in a manner reasonably justifiable for the purpose of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Covid-19 exposes the need for a European constitution

European Parliament in Brussels (Getty Images)
European Parliament in Brussels (Getty Images)
Published 15 May 2020 12:00   0 Comments

As Europe begins to emerge from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, another crisis seems to be looming.

The German Constitutional Court last week threatened to block the Bundesbank from taking part in the EU stimulus program to save the Euro, in a challenge to European unity.

The reaction echoes the latest clash among EU leaders over how to rescue their countries from the economic fallout of the pandemic. After the Virtual Summit, French President Macron admitted that “Europe has no future if we cannot find a response to this exceptional shock”. 

Similarly, in the latest episode of the Lowy Institute’s podcast The Director's Chair, when asked about the consequences of Covid-19 on the European project, former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta said:

If we don’t have a European comprehensive response, if we leave only to the countries to respond, the divide will be larger, and Euroscepticism and the mutual lack of trust among countries will rise, and that is bad news for the future of the European Union.

The coronavirus crisis indeed calls into question the very essence of the EU, bringing to light its dysfunctions and fragility. But the situation also offers Brussels an opportunity to reshape its administration, which is often viewed as weak, slow, and outdated. The EU has a chance to emerge from the crisis stronger than before – unless Covid-19 succeeds in dismantling it once and for all.

This is not the first crisis the Union has faced. Today’s EU is marked by the obstacles and failings of its past ­– the Iraq War in 2003, negative French and Dutch referendums in 2005 on the adoption of an EU constitution, the sovereign debt crisis in 2009, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the 2015 migration crisis.

Each of those developments exposed new differences and fractures between member states.

The current distribution of powers within the EU doesn’t work and widens the gap between the basic political objectives of the Union and its capacity and willingness to act.

To survive, the Union had to make concessions on the European project. Some countries contribute less to the European budgetary effort, while others have decided to carve out a “tailor-made” Europe, without a defence policy, the Euro, or the Schengen area.

This is how, over the years, the EU has gradually given up its spirit of “wanting to live together”.

This time around, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the European house is on the verge of collapse.

The initial attempts of member states and European authorities to handle Covid-19 did not excel. Quite the opposite. All reacted late, in disorderly fashion.

The height of  the dysfunction was reached when Germany and France both limited the export of essential medical products to Italy, considered at the time the epicentre of the pandemic.

Since then, the situation has improved, but not markedly. The European Central Bank launched its program to buy national public and private debt up to €750 billion (A$1.2 trillion), and has highlighted its willingness to do more to avoid a possible financial fragmentation in the eurozone. On the plus side, the European Commission has suspended the application of budgetary rules, set up a medical stockpile, taken measures to aid medical research, and authorised states to help their businesses.

Unfortunately, all came a little too late. It is not those measures that will remain in the collective memory of Italians, but rather the images of planes landing from China, Cuba, and Russia, carrying masks, ventilators, and doctors.

Solidarity is the heart of the European project. It’s the glue that holds European nations together. Whether it is economic, legal, or military, this solidarity offers Europeans the ability to be part of a larger whole, which has enabled the European market to grow and prosper.

Shipment of 10 million protective face masks from China arrives at Leipzig/Halle Airport in Germany, 27 April (NATO/Flickr)

Today, European solidarity is being eroded by its members’ domestic interests, while national leaders blame European authorities for their lack of response and effectiveness.

The problem is structural. The current distribution of powers within the EU doesn’t work and widens the gap between the basic political objectives of the Union and its capacity and willingness to act.

It is time to rethink Europe’s institutional anatomy and establish a real constitution.

The mandates of European institutions need to be broadened and strengthened. The Commission must transform into a type of European government, and parliament should assume full legislative and budgetary power.

Similarly, the Union must exercise what can only be done by a few: defence, security, currency, and crisis management – and leave to member states what they can do on their own.

In a sense, the new constitution would transform the European Union into a federation.

Instruments of direct democracy and popular initiatives must also be encouraged to provide for a direct link of legitimacy between citizens and their elected representatives. By doing so, national governments and political elites would no longer hold on to their gatekeeper role. 

Not all European nations will adhere to it, but the project must be proposed to the European people on the basis of strengthening democracy.

If such a body had existed already, it would have been able to distribute stocks of masks, tests, and doctors where and when they were most needed. And it would have been European flags flying on the tarmac at Fiumicino airport in Rome, not Chinese ones.

The immediate consequences of holding a constitutional debate should not be a cause for anxiety. There will certainly be disagreements and deep divisions between member states. These are hardly new, and the process would only make them clearer to all, which is a good start.

In an Olympic-sized challenge, Japan’s golden chance could go begging

A games, without crowds? (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)
A games, without crowds? (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)
Published 15 May 2020 11:30   0 Comments

There have been plenty of Japanese officials weighing in on Tokyo’s Olympic rescheduling plans over the last few months. At times, it’s been hard to know who to focus on, especially when trying to follow the whole affair from Australia.

From the ageing Tokyo 2020 President Mori Yoshiro to former athlete turned Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto Haguida Koichi (the current Minister for Education, Culture and Sport) to Prime Minister Abe Shinzo himself – Japan’s hungry news media has understandably been asking anyone and everyone for comment.

While the Olympics press conferences in this most ordered of Asian nations were uncharacteristically haphazard at the start of this planned Olympic year, things have now slowly settled into a rhythm. It seems those responsible have also agreed on a party line too: if the Olympics can’t be done properly next year, they should be cancelled altogether.

Imagine a 2021 event where some of the competing nations were still in lockdown, while others were basically back to normal. The already uneven playing field of world sport would be even bumpier.

The cancellation position has firmed up in Japanese officialdom. First off the blocks was Tokyo 2020 President Mori, a former prime minister himself, saying that a postponement of the Games into 2022 would be impossible. If a further delay was required for public health reasons the Olympics would just be scrapped, he said.

Taking up the baton, Abe reiterated in parliament that the Games had to be held in a “complete form” for both athletes and spectators. He added that the coronavirus pandemic needed to be “contained” before that would be possible. Hashimoto, a former speed skater and track cyclist, ran the anchor leg, saying the Games’ viability did not depend on whether a Covid-19 vaccine was found in time.

Abe’s all or nothing approach makes sense if you look at it from a sporting perspective. Imagine a 2021 event where some of the competing nations were still in lockdown, while others were basically back to normal. The already uneven playing field of world sport would be even bumpier. At random times during the lead up, some athletes would be unable to prepare properly for events where tiny performance advantages can be the difference between winning gold or missing the final.

And what would it mean for the Olympic spectacle if fans were not allowed into the events, for health reasons? Try to imagine Brazil’s dramatic home win on penalties in the Rio 2016 men’s football final without a crowd. Would Neymar have sunk to the ground in tears in front of no-one? In fact, trying to picture any Olympic final without a crowd is just bizarre. All that passion released when an athlete trains for years and years and then succeeds, just screamed out to empty seats.

A full cancellation of the Games would be a gutsy decision though. Only three times have the Summer Olympics been called off completely, and on each occasion it was due to a World War. It would be sad for local supporters and for the athletes themselves, but most importantly perhaps, it would be a shame for Japan.

Before social distancing: the 2016 men’s football final, Rio 2016 (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Quite aside from the huge expense that Japan has incurred so far, the event has incredible potential for the country to rebuild a few damaged relationships across the region. Japan has had recent trade disagreements with South Korea and the two countries have reportedly not bothered to talk on coronavirus measures. North Korea, meanwhile, remains a disliked neighbour after firing missiles into Japanese fishing areas. The country's relationship with China has been strained for years. Due to the coronavirus China’s President Xi Jinping had to cancel an overdue trip to Japan in April, but he could foreseeably reschedule that to coincide with an Olympics next year.

Those that dismiss sport as a blunt diplomatic tool should think back to the Winter Olympics in 2018, where South and North Korea showed rare glimpses of camaraderie. During the Games Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Just months later Moon and Kim shook hands at the DMZ in an historic meeting. While relations between the two sides have definitely cooled since, the heady unity of the PyeongChang Games at least created the right conditions for talks to start.

It’s amazing what sort of opportunities, both political and sporting, an Olympics can toss up. All of these would be missed if the Olympics were scrapped completely next year. That’s why it’s so regrettable that a cancellation is being mooted at the moment by Japan’s top Olympic officials ­– even if some scientists are already saying it would be the right move.

COVIDcast Episode 11: Dave Sharma MP on COVID-19 and Pacific relations

Published 15 May 2020 11:00   0 Comments

In Episode 11 of COVIDcast, Jonathan Pryke, Director of the Pacific Islands Program, sat down with Dave Sharma, Liberal member for the federal seat of Wentworth, to discuss strengthening ties between Australia and the Pacific, and a potential Australia‒Pacific travel “bubble”. Sharma has a particular interest in the Pacific region, having served as a diplomat in Papua New Guinea, and is co-convener of the recently formed Parliamentary Friends of the Pacific.

Sharma began by outlining his proposal that the “trans-Tasman bubble” – opening trade, commerce and tourism links between Australia and New Zealand – be extended to Pacific nations. Sharma said Covid-19 had been well controlled in the region with a low number of cases, and he focused on the fact that tourism and trade with Australia and New Zealand was an “economic lifeline” for Pacific neighbours. He noted the heavy toll the virus had taken on the economies of the region, citing Fiji as an example:

About 40% of its GDP comes from tourism and that’s basically gone to zero through this crisis. In Australia we’re looking at an economic contraction of somewhere in the high single figures, but Fiji is looking at the 20‒30% range.

On the question of the global impact of the virus, Sharma said, “It’s much more feasible to see these sorts of normal commerce, trade and tourism links re-establishing themselves between Australia and New Zealand and the Pacific than it is with other parts of the world”, although he cautioned that a Pacific travel bubble would not be in place before the end of 2020. He also noted that relaxing travel restrictions would happen sequentially: “Domestic travel first, Australia and New Zealand travel next, and then more broadly into the Pacific.”

Pryke raised debate about Australia’s migration program and how proposed changes might affect Pacific nations. Sharma highlighted the importance of the Pacific Labour Mobility Schemes, describing it as a “win‒win” for the countries involved, in sharing skills, facilitating remittances, and addressing a shortage of workers in certain sectors.

Pryke and Sharma also discussed what might be next for the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, what else Australia is and should be doing to respond to Covid-19 in the Pacific, and how Australia’s ties with the region can be further strengthened.

COVIDcast is a weekly pop-up podcast hosted by Lowy Institute experts to discuss the implications of Covid-19 for Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Previous episodes are available on the Lowy Institute website. You can also subscribe to COVIDcast on Apple Podcasts, listen on SoundCloudSpotifyGoogle podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Covid contest in Indian Ocean region: India, China jostle for top spot

Nathu La border crossing between India and China (Diptendu Dutta/AFP via Getty Images)
Nathu La border crossing between India and China (Diptendu Dutta/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 15 May 2020 09:00   0 Comments

In recent times, Australia has been searching for ways to support its Pacific “family” through the Covid-19 crisis with an eye on China’s moves. India has also been trying to help countries in the Indian Ocean region amid China’s growing influence. Responses to the corona crisis have so far largely focused medical aid. But it will soon shift to financial assistance, where India will be at a big disadvantage to Beijing.

Initial responses to Covid-19 in the Indian Ocean region by China and India have been largely symbolic. As in other parts of the world, through much of April, China focused on so-called “face-mask” diplomacy to bolster its image. China donated relatively small amounts of testing kits and protective clothing to several countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Maldives. China also made commercial sales of much larger quantities of supplies, some of which were of questionable quality.

India has responded in its own way, keen to position itself as the “net security provider” in a regional crisis. India sent supplies of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) tablets to South Asian countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan and island states such as Mauritius, Maldives, and Seychelles. This week, an Indian naval ship departed for Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Comoros, carrying medical teams and supplies of HCQ tablets and Ayurvedic medicines – both touted by Indian authorities as remedies for Covid-19.

India’s efforts have sometimes rubbed against regional sensitivities. Reports that Indian Army medical teams were being readied for deployment to other countries in South Asia provoked sharp responses from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan to the effect that Indian troops were not required.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a video conference of SAARC leaders on combating Covid-19 in March (MEAphotogallery/Flickr)

These early soft power moves by Beijing and Delhi may have been appreciated in some cases and not in others, but their effect was probably also fairly transitory. But the important story is how China and India address the impact of coronavirus on the region in coming months and years, and how each builds a narrative.

The Indian Ocean region has been a major focus of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the fallout from Covid-19 has the potential to severely damage it, or at least considerably alter it. A major economic downturn, including a downturn in global trade, will likely significantly reduce the need for new infrastructure as well as the feasibility of recently-built infrastructure. Many planned projects will likely be put in the deep freeze and in some cases, regional states may find it increasingly difficult to service debt loads on existing BRI projects.

Almost inevitably this will put a dent in China’s BRI, even assuming that it is willing to continue with the level of funding that it made available in pre-Covid days. In many cases, Beijing will need to decide whether to provide new loans, reschedule existing loans or foreclose on debts (which could controversially include taking control of infrastructure).

China has already “indicated some willingness” in principle to provide debt relief to low income countries, but it remains to be seen how much relief it would be willing to give – and whether it would seek strategic quid pro quos from borrowers. Widespread debt relief would also likely reduce the willingness and ability of Chinese lenders to back further ventures.

Relief supplies have been the focus of China’s so-called “face-mask” diplomacy in a bid to bolster its image (US Air Force)

Despite significant disruptions to many projects, Pakistan, China’s principal strategic partner in the region, is pressing ahead with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). If anything, Pakistan is likely to double down on CPEC, reflecting how much successive governments have staked on it as the country’s saviour. At the same time, Pakistan has already asked China for debt rescheduling on US$30 billion in projects, which it is likely to obtain given the political importance of CPEC to Beijing.

Elsewhere in South Asia, China has made a $500 million loan on concessional terms to Sri Lanka, another regional partner. According to some reports, China has offered similar loans to Bangladesh, Nepal and Maldives. Bangladesh has also requested debt rescheduling or interest rate cuts on loans on several BRI projects.

India may have an ever greater imperative than China to fashion a strategy of regional financial assistance in response to the crisis.

Mishandling necessary debt re-negotiations could further dent China’s soft power in the region. But deft diplomacy – and a willingness to write off large amounts of money – could reinforce a positive image for Beijing. Indeed, stringent economic circumstances in future could improve the BRI by forcing lenders and borrowers to give greater focus to economic sustainability and value of new projects.

India may have an ever greater imperative than China to fashion a strategy of regional financial assistance in response to the crisis. India has reportedly offered a US$400 million currency swap to Sri Lanka to help liquidity and has released (a previously agreed) $150 million in currency swaps to Maldives. But its lack of economic resources means that it will find it hard to compete with China across the broader region.

As has been the case before, New Delhi may instead be forced to rely on Japan as a source of funds to balance China’s influence in the region. This may include bilateral loans such as a US$1 billion loan from Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to Bangladesh or financing through the Japan-led multilateral lender, Asian Development Bank, which has tripled its Covid-19 facility to US$20 billion.

The corona crisis in the Indian Ocean region will probably soon move beyond masks and remedies to money. India may find that claiming the mantle of net security provider to the region can be an expensive business.

To act, or not? Al-Shabaab’s response to a Covid-19 crisis in Somalia

A destroyed house following a suicide bombing attack at a nearby tea shop in Mogadishu, Somalia, on 25 March Abdirazak Hussein Farah/AFP via Getty Images)
A destroyed house following a suicide bombing attack at a nearby tea shop in Mogadishu, Somalia, on 25 March Abdirazak Hussein Farah/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 15 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, regional security agencies have flagged the potential for a new wave of violent extremism to emerge within Somalia. World Health Organisation figures show that Somalia has had more than 1200 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and more than 50 deaths. However, the actual number of cases is likely far higher due to limited testing capacity and lack of skilled health workers.

The pandemic has presented the opportunity for groups to ramp up both rhetorical and physical attacks while governments are feeling particularly weak and distracted by the virus, with the dual objectives of furthering their own respective ambitions and expanding their support base. How, and with what effect, al-Shabaab, Somalia’s most well-known violent extremist group, will operate under these new conditions is yet to be fully realised. However, there are a number of potential trajectories that may emerge.

Exploiting conditions and strengthening networks

Within Somalia itself, the current conditions would be easy for insurgent groups to exploit. Tensions have been running high in the capital after the recent police killings of two citizens while enforcing Covid-19 restrictions on 24 April, culminated in widespread protests over the apparent impunity of the government security forces. And the timing could not be worse, as the frustration over price hikes in food prices in the lead up to Ramadan fans civil unrest. While escalating food costs around the Holy month of Ramadan is not unique, the pressures of the Covid-19 lockdowns mean that the price spikes are higher at a time when the income for many is drastically reduced.

What benefit does this civic unrest have for al-Shabaab? The political turmoil could be harnessed to radicalise and recruit new members, to promote a view that the government of Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo has mishandled the Covid-19 crisis, and to present themselves as an alternative.

The Covid-19 crisis might present a new opportunity for al-Shabaab to tighten it grip and expand its control over regions.

So far, the group appears to have taken the pandemic as an opportunity to escalate operations, with a number of attacks reported throughout the month of April. They likely will also capitalise upon existing resentment toward the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The continuing lockdown and price escalations coupled with the reduced earning capacity may push more people to turn to informal networks. In times of crisis, research has indicated that networks have proven invaluable lifelines for everything from ensuring survival, and a means of income to a sense of normalcy. Covid-19 could also see al-Shabaab grow its support network through the provision of much needed services. Extensive informal networks already exist within Somalia, and the prolonged lockdown risk growing these networks further. These networks operate without state regulation or state control and could be readily exploited by al-Shabaab. Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis might present a new opportunity for the group to tighten its grip and expand its control over regions.

Aid work is continuing in Somalia to assist in tacking Covid-19 (Trócaire/Flickr)

Targeted messaging

UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for a “global ceasefire” as the world faces the Covid-19 pandemic. While this has seen some modest success (for example, the Saudi coalition’s unilateral ceasefire in Yemen), it seems unlikely this will resonate with non-state jihadist groups, including al-Shabaab. The Islamic State has already encouraged its supporters to attack Western targets while they are weakened and distracted by the pandemic.

Al-Shabaab has also taken the opportunity to bring Covid-19 into their broader anti-Western narrative, blaming the spread of the virus on “the crusader forces who have invaded the country and the disbelieving countries that support them”. As the pandemic continues, it is yet to be seen whether al-Shabaab will follow the example set by al-Qaeda, with whom they have been affiliated since 2009, which has focused on providing health guidance and condemning the immorality they argue caused the pandemic, rather than actually encouraging violence as Islamic State has done.

The cost of doing nothing?

However, there may be other reasons for al-Shabaab to remain away from the spotlight during the crisis. Violent overtures during this time might be poorly received, and rather than encouraging recruitment, may in fact result alienate the public. Indeed, this very scenario occurred in previous crises in the Horn of Africa. The group has previously caused more harm than good to its reputation during crises, such as during the 2011 famine when it denied there was a famine and banned aid workers from entering Shabaab-controlled territory, turning many of their former supporters against them, and it is yet to be seen if the group has learned from past mistakes.

Alternatively, the group might not have the resources to continue a widespread campaign in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. The group’s extensive networks of taxation – a network that allegedly extends into the diaspora ­– may be feeling the pinch under market contractions both within Somalia and abroad. This may lead the group to press pause on their campaign of terror for the foreseeable future.

Al-Shabaab has a number strategic choices that could all likely serve the group well, be it using the pandemic to reiterate the failings of the current government, or extend and strengthen existing informal networks, or promote their messaging. Even if the group choose not to act, there is still the possibility of benefit. Unfortunately, al-Shabaab have proven themselves past masters of exploiting political turmoil, and the current crisis provides the group with another opportunity.

Muddled messages as Britain seeks to stay alert

The harsh UK experience of Covid-19 helps explain the anxiety surrounding the next stage (Number 10/Flickr)
The harsh UK experience of Covid-19 helps explain the anxiety surrounding the next stage (Number 10/Flickr)
Published 14 May 2020 11:00   0 Comments

After the seven weeks of lockdown, which had managed to suppress the spread of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the British people on the evening of Sunday 10 May to explain the next steps. Restrictions were to be eased, but moves would be tentative and contingent, checking for new outbreaks at each stage, with a possible return to more stringent measures if the virus took advantage of the relaxed rules.

The three biggest constraints resulting from the lockdown were to be eased: the limits on outdoor pursuits including regular exercise; not being able to get to work if you were unable to do your job from home; and school closures preventing parents leaving for work even if they wanted to. Thus “Stay at Home”, the previous headline advice, was qualified. The new slogan was “Stay Alert”, a very different sort of instruction.

This was not the first time the government was accused of poor communications during the crisis.

As an exercise in communication this was not a great success. A lengthy document to help explain the new guidance and provide the scientific background was not published until the next afternoon. It was only then followed by a parliamentary session and a press conference when many of the issues raised could be explored. By this time confusion reigned and the government was accused of “muddled messages” that could be dangerous in their consequences.

The largest issue was whether this was simply too early for any easing. Covid-19 was well down but certainly not out. But the source of the confusion was guidance for different sets of circumstances that kept on throwing up anomalies. Employers had to ensure social distancing at work but what was an individual desperate for the money to do if they had failed to do so? If they could not cycle or walk to work dare they use public transport? You could meet up with one person you knew outside your household in a local park, but what would happen if you came across two members of your family by chance? If no visitors were allowed, including grandchildren, why could you bring in a cleaner?

Boris Johnson was hardly a unifying figure after years of political polarisation and arguments about Brexit (Number 10/Flickr)

This was not the first time the government was accused of poor communications during the crisis. The weeks leading up to lockdown were notable for inconsistencies and sudden changes of gear, as it dawned on the government that they risked failing to grip the situation. There was talk of “herd immunity”, an important topic but not helpful as an apparent rationalisation for doing very little. The lockdown came as a result of a combination of new epidemiological advice that highlighted the virus’ speed of advance and public anxiety that while other countries moved to shut schools and ban large events the government was dithering.

Johnson was reluctant to shutdown society and the economy. His strengths as a communicator lie in his optimistic outlook and not as a purveyor of sombre news. As his government advised not shaking hands he admitted he had just done just that when visiting a hospital. He was hardly a unifying figure after years of political polarisation and arguments about Brexit. Yet once the uncertainty was over, the seriousness of the situation acknowledged, with few dissenters, and new measures were in place, the government found itself backed and trusted. The level of compliance with the lockdown measures was extremely high. In that respect the messaging worked well. For some weeks, Johnson, for a while with the Health Secretary, was hors de combat with Covid-19. The moment when he was rushed into intensive care was alarming. His personal appreciation of the support he’d been given in hospital, gained sympathy and also encouraged a more emollient and consensual tone.

The support continued despite a growing awareness that the UK was having one of the worst experiences in Europe, certainly when measured by deaths. There were a number of reasons for this. London as a global hub and the largest city in Europe was one factor. Delay in introducing stringent measures was another. There were problems, not unique to the UK, in getting adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline staff.

Yet something else was going on which was only belatedly appreciated. Having watched what had happened in Italy the government’s top priority was to ensure that the National Health Service was not overwhelmed by desperate patients needing intensive care. The special place the NHS occupies in British life made this a popular choice. Every Thursday at 8pm people went out on to the streets to clap for health workers. Extraordinary efforts were made to prepare for incoming cases, even building new hospitals within days.

But this sharp focus had costs. People ill for other reasons failed to seek the support they needed. Most seriously the burden was shifted onto the social care system (sometimes literally as elderly people, possibly still infectious, were moved out of hospital into care homes). Long underfunded, fragmented, and with carers moving within homes and around the wider community, the system struggled to cope. Most European countries had similar problems. Nonetheless the spread of the disease in care homes took a terrible toll of the most vulnerable group.

The harsh UK experience of Covid-19 helps explain the anxiety surrounding the next stage. With the economy crashing and debt accumulating the UK government is caught (again not uniquely) between a desire to get people back to work and the fear of a second peak. This tension has been reflected in the messaging to the public about next steps. It was possible to go into the lockdown with clarity but it is only possible to get out with uncertainty.

Covid-19 and the acceleration of state surveillance

Berlin, 1 April 2020 (Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Berlin, 1 April 2020 (Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 14 May 2020 09:00   0 Comments

If the 15th-century philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli were alive today, he would surely have recognised the power of surveillance technologies that states such as China, Singapore, South Korea, and others have adopted in the fight against Covid-19. Patrol robots and drones, CCTV cameras and smartphone applications, all supporting facial recognition, location tracking, and big-data analytics for contact tracing and social control (including law enforcement). These things may be tools for protection, but they are also instruments of fear.

In the effort to persuade people to comply with counter-pandemic measures, fear of state punishment has perhaps played a greater role than fear of the loss of privacy and civil liberties. But people are also fearful of sacrificing privacy and civil liberties as a result of tech-enabled mass surveillance expanding state power.

Dismantling surveillance technologies after the pandemic has passed will not be so easy – it’s akin to demobilising an army after the battle, hoping that war (or a pandemic, in this case) will never recur.

The threat of inadequate data protection adds to these fears, even if experts claim that rapid implementation of these technologies is necessary against the smart virus that is the cause of Covid-19. In Australia and Singapore, for example, commentators have suggested that downloading national contact-tracing applications Covidsafe and TraceTogether should be made mandatory.

Civil-rights advocates contend that the use of surveillance technologies should be time-limited and cease when the pandemic is brought under control. There are also concerns that the use of surveillance technologies to fight Covid-19 resembles China’s authoritarianism and thus implicitly enhances its soft power.

Given, however, that these technologies are so new, and the virus and its socioeconomic impact are evolving and expected to linger for years, states have an opportunity to assess how to use these surveillance tools. Here are four strategic considerations:

  • Surveillance technologies are not a silver bullet. They can supplement manual contact tracing. These technologies are effective because manual contact tracing cannot keep up with how quickly the virus spreads through densely populated cities. Like many tools, these technologies are neutral. They can be used responsibly (i.e., for enhanced security) or they can be misused (for monitoring, repression, and control). Dismantling surveillance technologies after the pandemic has passed will not be so easy – it’s akin to demobilising an army after the battle, hoping that war (or a pandemic, in this case) will never recur.
  • Nothing is risk-free. Everything is about risk management. Beneath the fear of loss of privacy and civil liberties is a global decline of trust in state institutions and elites. The potential for the state to exploit its power for parochial political gains instead of protecting citizens’ interests looms in the minds of many. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrated that people cannot trust the private sector to protect their data from manipulation. There is a need to rethink the notions of trust and risk, instead of perceiving them in binary, zero-sum terms.
  • Increased use of surveillance technologies might make states less democratic and more tolerant of China’s authoritarianism. This concern is more of a geopolitical construct. An overemphasis of the dangers of China's authoritarianism can overlook how other powerful states have disregarded human rights in the use of technology. Ultimately, the decision to adopt new surveillance technologies needs to a strike a difficult balance between legitimate privacy concerns and guarding public health and the economy.
  • Covid-19 highlights challenges that will likely render multilateralism less effective in addressing global crises. Even in the face of common threats to humanity, states are more inclined to put self-interest before the collective good. The war of words between China and the US over the virus’s origins fuels geopolitical distrust and uncertainty, impairing international cooperation and global leadership. More states will be poised to pursue self-reliance to avoid being caught flat-footed in the future.

Such considerations point to a future where tech-enabled state surveillance becomes an unstoppable global trend. Covid-19 may be a turning point that causes states to make tougher choices to better prepare for both man-made and biological threats. Public health unpreparedness has already resulted in severe harm to national interests. Keeping people safe and economies functioning is fundamental for a state’s political legitimacy.

Nonetheless, states must acknowledge that concerns over privacy and civil liberties will continue to characterise the post-pandemic zeitgeist. They therefore need to demonstrate how surveillance protects citizens, not only institutions and elites. They will also have to address the socioeconomic inequalities that Covid-19 has exposed.

There will always be those who question official motives. For this, our time-travelling Machiavelli also had some advice: It is better to be feared than loved, if one cannot be both.

Australians doubt either US or China will emerge stronger after Covid

What Australians think about the power of the US and China matters in the region (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)
What Australians think about the power of the US and China matters in the region (Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)
Published 14 May 2020 05:00   1 Comments

While much has been written about Covid-19’s lasting effects on the world order, one aspect is becoming more evident: the world after the pandemic may not look so different to the one before it. As prominent US commentator Richard Haass writes, “Covid-19 will not so much change the basic direction of world history as accelerate it”.

There is no clearer test case for the trajectory of power in the Asia-Pacific than the attitude of Australians.

For Australia, this looks both likely and worrying. A new Lowy Institute COVIDpoll released today of public attitudes towards the coronavirus response shows Australians continue to watch the United States’ decline with concern and sadness. Australians are also increasingly wary of China, and anxious about economic entanglement, and the experience of recent days will only elevate this concern. As events unfold, the trade-offs will be sharper, the geopolitics harder to navigate.

It matters what Australians think. Australia is not necessarily a bellwether for US allies in the region. But Australia is the United States’ most dependable ally: it went to Vietnam when the United Kingdom wouldn’t. Australia invaded Iraq and Afghanistan when many NATO allies refused. Australia has also led on questions of Chinese Communist Party interference and Huawei’s participation in 5G networks. And China is Australia’s largest trading partner. There is no clearer test case for the trajectory of power in the Asia-Pacific than the attitude of Australians.

Looking at Chinese state media headlines from 2009, compared to 2020, you might think the world has barely changed over the past decade. The People’s Daily then shouted “US blame game cannot change facts”, “World places great hope on China”, “World economy faces deep recession”. Only in 2009, during the global financial crisis, the source of the recession that crippled the world’s economies was the United States. At the same time, China lauded its own triumph – only seven years after its accession to the World Trade Organisation, many in China were convinced it had learned all it needed to from the West.

Fast-forward to 2020, and the world is again plunged into recession. The United States and China are again engaged in a war of words. This time, the crisis started in China, but it is the United States buckling under its weight. The tragic loss of life in the United States is comparable to a wartime footing: already more American lives have been lost than in the Vietnam or Korean War, and the devastating milestone of the 116,000 fatalities in the First World War looms close.

By contrast, China’s infection rate has flatlined. Australia has too. Two of the countries that survived the global financial crisis relatively unscathed (Australia was the only major developed economy to not fall into recession in that period) have made it this far through the Covid-19 pandemic, wounded, but still standing. But in reputational terms, both China and the United States have suffered a serious blow.

In Australia, past Lowy polls have shown only 32 percent trust China to “act responsibly in the world.” But fewer Australians have confidence in Trump than in Xi Jinping. When publics today think of which leaders have failed to contain the spread of COVID-19, does Trump or Xi come to mind? The Lowy COVIDpoll today shows that Australians are disappointed with the responses of both.

Only one in three Australians say that China has handled Covid-19 well. Whether or not China’s official figures are to be believed, there is little chance that the country would have reopened and returned to work if it had not largely contained the virus. So while China has attempted to direct attention to its successes in virus management, and its so-called “face mask diplomacy”, it would appear Australians are unconvinced, and focused on the early mismanagement and cover-up of the crisis.

As much as Australians have soured on China in recent years, the Lowy COVIDpoll shows their greatest condemnation is for the United States. Only 10% of Australians say the United States has handled Covid-19 well so far. By contrast 92% of Australians say their own country has handled Covid-19 well. The reliability of Australia’s ally, the United States, is growing as a question in the minds of many Australians.

Australian views of power in the world have also shifted since 2009. Three-quarters of Australians said in 2009 that China would be more powerful after the global financial crisis. New Lowy Institute polling shows that in 2020, only a third of Australians say China will be more powerful after the Covid-19 pandemic. And more than half the country say the United States will be less powerful than it was before the crisis, a 20-point jump from the global financial crisis. This aligns with public opinion in recent years: Australians have little expectation that President Donald Trump would do the right thing in world affairs, and two thirds say Australia’s alliance with the United States has weakened under Trump’s administration.

The world has changed in many ways since 2009, but Covid-19 is not a turning point. As Australians’ outlook on the world reveals, the challenge of navigating relations with the world’s two superpowers is only sharpening.

Covid-19 and foreign policy: What’s changed, what hasn’t

Published 13 May 2020 14:30   0 Comments

A lot of ink is flowing about the “new normal” that will prevail post-crisis. A brief look at four different international issues offers a glimpse of what this “new normal” in international cooperation might be.

The first concerns global health. Leaving aside for the moment the call by countries such as Australia to clarify where, how, and why Covid-19 started, everyone must wish for a series of actions that lead globally to control of the virus, and establishing an effective vaccine. The indications are that scientists and health professionals across the globe are prepared to collaborate on this. It’s not clear cut, but it tends to the positive.

The second issue is climate change. This long-term problem has so far received at best intermittent international cooperation, while at worst its importance has been dismissed. Now, because of the lockdowns imposed around the world (about 3 billion people affected), New Delhi has clear skies, China’s pollution indexes have dropped, and there are dolphins back in the lagoons of Venice. One would think that this might give some impetus to greater work on controlling human destruction of the climate. But the climate talks known as the COP26 conference set for Glasgow later this year will not take place (and, ironically, the conference centre itself has been converted into a temporary Covid-19 hospital).

Economic priorities, including investment in large scale infrastructure to provide jobs, will have to be balanced against environmental policies set in balmier days. The world oil price has collapsed, putting pressure on energy policies. Public transport systems have to deal with the risks of handling large numbers of passengers in confined spaces, and the skies are empty of aircraft causing economic havoc. National reactions will differ on how to respond and international consensus much harder to obtain.

Vancouver International Airport (GoToVan/Flickr)

The third area is migration. One of the most important components of globalisation has been the movement of people, particularly in the labour market. Look at the examples, including South Asian workers in the Middle East, highly skilled from all over the world heading to the US and Western Europe, Pacific Islanders coming to Australia and New Zealand, or students to Western Europe, the US, Canada, and Australasia. Right now, that model has collapsed.

With every country in recession and searching for capital, the challenge will be to ensure that investment flows relatively freely to help recovery.

Is it going to get back up again? Certainly not in the next year or two, or longer. The implications for the developing world are staggering because of the importance of remittances to their economies. Remittances to Tonga, for instance, comprise 37% of total GDP. Policy decisions in the migration field will be made again largely at a national level, against a framework of need for labour versus severe domestic unemployment. Not to mention the backlash against foreigners which seems likely.

The fourth area is foreign investment. Again, a key to globalisation and a key to economic growth that has supported economies around the globe. With every country in recession and searching for capital, the challenge will be to ensure that investment flows relatively freely to help recovery. Already we are seeing that a first reaction is to control inbound foreign investment more tightly. The European Union, the US, Japan, and Australia, among other governments, have already tightened their regimes. Part of this is a reaction to China. Part of it is because the Covid-19 crisis has led governments to believe that they have to have national controls of certain industries.

Most of current regional trade agreements have an investment component allowing foreign investment to flow more easily. Will they change? Will governments want to renounce some of their obligations to their trading partners? Not encouraging so far, and more will certainly come.

But it is not all doom and gloom. The announcement that certain World Trade Organisation members, including the EU and China, but not the US and Japan, have agreed to establish an interim arbitration arrangement is good news.

And to put some life into tourism, the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand have endorsed the concept of allowing travel between the two countries when both can be sure of mastering the health issues involved. It is desperately sought after by the industries on both sides of the Tasman. But it is not for tomorrow, encouraging as the idea is. It may eventually provide some economic stimulus also to the South Pacific, if the bubble is extended to include them.

America’s rudderless Covid response

US President Donald Trump walks out of a news conference on Covid-19 held in the Rose Garden of the White House, Washington, 11 May (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump walks out of a news conference on Covid-19 held in the Rose Garden of the White House, Washington, 11 May (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 13 May 2020 13:00   1 Comments

Projecting optimism about US recovery from the coronavirus pandemic requires one to take the long view.

America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, relative to the rest of the world, has been abysmal. The US has more than 30% of all cases, despite being home to only 5% of the world’s population. Upwards of 83,000 Americans have died over the past four months, a death rate six times higher than the global average.

The federal government was slow to act and then unwilling to shoulder significant responsibility. This dynamic, coupled with America’s long-time underinvestment in public health, raises serious questions about America’s capacity to contain the virus.

The “curve” in the US has – at least temporarily – flattened, but it has stabilised at an unacceptable rate, with 2000 Americans dying per day, week after week. In New York City, the epicentre of the epidemic, cases have recently begun to decline, but infections are on the rise throughout the rest of the country.

Anything is possible in the coming months, but it’s hard to see how Trump wins re-election if conditions do not improve in terms of containing the virus. And it’s hard to see a way for containment efforts to meaningfully improve in that time.

The US has not developed a national strategy for testing and tracing, a key component in the success of other nations’ containment of the virus. The federal government has refused to coordinate the production and distribution of critical supplies. And in the context of a global pandemic, the US president has taken steps to isolate the US from multilateral efforts to manage the pandemic, which could threaten Americans’ access to therapies and an eventual vaccine.

Within a domestic context, there are some areas in which government has been working effectively and delivering benefits to people. Many state governors have responded to the crisis with decisive action and built public trust through consistent communication. The high level of competence at the state and local levels is not new or surprising, but it has been out of focus in recent years.

The US Federal Reserve was well-prepared for the current crisis, given the number of mechanisms set up during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) that could be pulled off the shelf. The Fed moved quickly and is using all of its tools at scale.

The US Congress also moved quickly and as of late April had allocated $2.8 trillion in emergency funding to address the health and economic crises. Four separate legislative packages (COVID 1-4) passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. The legislation was imperfect and will require significant oversight, but there was a concerted effort to prioritise relief to small businesses and workers over banks and corporations.

The assistance is badly needed. In April, more than 20 million people applied for unemployment benefits, contributing to 14.7% unemployment – a rate of rate not seen since the Great Depression. Economists and officials within the Trump Administration have indicated it may go as high as 25%.

A fifth legislative package is expected in the near future to support state and local governments facing massive budget shortfalls due to the costs of fighting the public health crisis and the loss of retail-based tax revenue. But this brief period of bipartisan goodwill in the US Congress may be over. The Democratic House recently requested $1 trillion to support states and municipalities, a figure that was immediately rejected by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as a bailout for Democratic state governments that mishandled their finances.

Further, while the Democratic House continues to work from home, Leader McConnell brought the Senate back into session in the US Capitol on 5 May. McConnell explained that given the pressure essential workers across the country are under to show up for work, it made sense for the Senate to show up. But the decision also suggests McConnell believed he needed to take action in the midst of this crisis to protect the Republican majority in the Senate and President Trump’s re-election prospects.

A shuttered business in Claremont, California. (Russ Allison Loar/Flickr)

Public polls and Trump’s own internal polls show him trailing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden both nationally and in swing states. Bringing Senators back to Washington provides McConnell with the opportunity confirm judicial nominees and fast-track presidential appointees. Perhaps more importantly, McConnell’s decision aligns symbolically with Trump’s insistence that the virus has been vanquished, things are on the up and up, and the economy will be back better than ever.

Americans do not appear to be on the same page as the president. They have been broadly supportive of stay-at-home orders, and a sizeable majority have expressed concerns that the economy will be opened too soon. The protesters in the Michigan State Capitol standing too close together brandishing rifles were frightening, but not at all representative of the bigger picture.

Anything is possible in the coming months, but it’s hard to see how Trump wins re-election if conditions do not improve in terms of containing the virus. And it’s hard to see a way for containment efforts to meaningfully improve in that time, given that the states have been left on their own to struggle through the crisis. Localised efforts will work eventually, but progress is likely to be slow and uneven.

The political analyst Ian Bremmer highlighted in a recent column that the US occupies a privileged place in the world economy and will carry many advantages into the post-Covid future. All true – but just how America gets from here to there remains unclear.

The health challenge in PNG is far greater than Covid-19 alone

A mobile polio vaccination clinic on a street in Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands, PNG (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)
A mobile polio vaccination clinic on a street in Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands, PNG (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 13 May 2020 10:00   0 Comments

Papua New Guinea remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to give birth.

Many women and girls walk kilometres for days when heavily pregnant in order to access health facilities. Just ten years ago, women and girls in rural districts would only visit a clinic as a place “to go die”, not to deliver a baby. Stigma and poor health literacy added to the fear – with the country still the hotspot for the world’s most drug-resistant tuberculosis, alarming malaria rates, and recent polio outbreaks. Even today, for every 100,000 live births in the country, 215 women die in complications resulting from labour.

Now add to this the danger of Covid-19.

The PNG health system should fear a larger indirect death toll than from the coronavirus pandemic itself. The myths and misinformation associated with Covid-19 are only going to add to the barriers of receiving a supervised and safe birth. PNG has a population of more than 8 million, with health challenges unfortunately as diverse as its 800 different languages. Vaccination rates are poor, and with people fearful of Covid-19, women and girls will deliver babies in the bush, often alone.

The challenge is to find a balance to prevent the spread of Covid-19 while avoiding the cost to other essential health services.

Studies of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone revealed a 34% increase in maternal mortality rates in health clinics alone during the outbreak. This followed stress on the medical supply chain and transport of drugs and equipment within the country. PNG faces the same risks should Covid-19 overburden the health system. Relatively simple treatments such a medications, gauze, or IV drips can stop a mother from bleeding to death, but it all depends on these potentially life-saving materials being available in rural health clinics.

In pre-Covid times, tuberculosis had been feared as the world’s biggest killer disease, claiming more than 4000 lives a day globally. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, we must not forget that tuberculosis remains the biggest killer, and the most drug-resistant strain, XDR-TB, is silently spreading in PNG. Millions of dollars and years of research have been dedicated towards tuberculosis programs in PNG, and this cannot go to waste as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Strict tuberculosis treatment regimes are still required, with complete patient compliance. Otherwise, tuberculosis prevalence will spike, and with it worsening drug resistance and ultimately more deaths.

A classroom in Kimbe, West Britain, PNG (ADB/Flickr)

Chronic disease is a major challenge across the Pacific. Malaria is a constant threat, especially in PNG and Solomon Islands, which accounts for more than 90% of cases in the Western Pacific Region, according to the World Health Organisation. That figure could climb if Covid-19 disrupts mitigation efforts, such as the spraying of insecticides, use of treated nets, or access to malaria testing.

Immunisation rates also remain stubbornly low. Headline outbreaks demonstrate the dangers, such as in 2018 in PNG with polio – a disease once thought all but eradicated – or in Samoa with a devastating measles episode. Covid-19 has the potential to severely disrupt what should be routine immunisation programs by gobbling up resources and putting a stop to vaccination patrols due to travel restrictions. The damage from this disruption may not become evident for five or more years.

So for PNG, even as the government seeks to contain the spread of coronavirus, now is the time to emphasize that immunizations are an essential health service. This effort will ultimately reduce the burden on the PNG health system.

All this illustrates that the challenge is to find a balance to prevent the spread of Covid-19 while avoiding the cost to other essential health services. The virus not only attacks people, but the systems people have built in an effort to support the most vulnerable. The burden on an already weak health system will be immense and long-lasting.

PNG is unlikely to reach the Sustainable Development Goals target of reducing maternal mortality rates by 2030, along with the lowering the cost of other major diseases. If any good is to come from the Covid-19 pandemic, hopefully it will be the chance for PNG to reassess the deep-seated problems in its health system and governance – and work towards improving healthcare access for all.

In beef over barley, Chinese economic coercion cuts against the grain

Where’s the beef? (Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Where’s the beef? (Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Published 13 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Last weekend news broke that the Chinese government was considering imposing large tariffs on Australian barley exports. Now, China-bound exports from four Australian meat processors have been suspended.

Following Australian calls for an independent inquiry into the early handling of Covid-19, China’s Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye warned that Chinese consumers might respond by boycotting Australian exports, mentioning tourism, education, wine and beef. The government pushed back, with Foreign Minister Marise Payne cautioning China against responding with “economic coercion”.

These latest moves, which have nothing to do with the choices of Chinese consumers, suggest that that caution has been ignored. Rather, the moves follow a familiar playbook, in which the Chinese government relies on technical regulatory measures to restrict exports, while denying any retaliation is taking place.

The technical story behind barley and beef

The prospect of barley tariffs is neither sudden nor unexpected, but the culmination of an 18-month investigation into allegations that Australia violated World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules by providing subsidies to exporters, assisting them to sell (“dump”) large volumes of barley at low prices in China.

The deadline for concluding the investigation is 19 May. If Beijing believes Australia has broken the rules and wants to respond with anti-dumping tariffs, it must do so this month.

These technical justifications are strikingly similar to past cases of economic sanctions by the Chinese government.

Industry bodies and the Australian government strenuously deny any violation of WTO rules. When the investigation was first announced, some analysts wondered whether it was retaliation for earlier anti-dumping actions taken by Canberra against Beijing. This possibility was again raised this week, including by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Morrison said he expects China to keep politics out of its final decision, while China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson described a “normal trade remedy and investigation”.

Labelling and health certificate requirements are apparently the issue with beef. Similarly, there is precedent for Australian meat producers falling foul of Chinese labelling rules, with six meatworks banned for three months in 2017. As with barley, the Australian government has so far downplayed the idea that the current suspensions are retaliatory, with Trade Minister Simon Birmingham saying he sees “no relationship” with the Covid-19 inquiry.

The political story: Covid-19 and economic coercion

These technical justifications are strikingly similar to past cases of economic sanctions by the Chinese government.

The defining feature of China’s unilateral economic sanctions is their informality. Rather than publicly announcing formal legal sanctions and linking them to a foreign policy dispute, Beijing typically denies that it is imposing economic punishments while explaining disruption to trade by reference to other plausible justifications.

Consider two examples. After the Philippine navy confronted Chinese fishing boats near a disputed area of the South China Sea in 2012, Filipino bananas rotted in Chinese ports after customs officials declared the fruit did not meet Chinese health standards. When Seoul installed a missile defence system over Beijing’s objections in 2016, South Korean conglomerate Lotte saw 74 of its 112 supermarkets inside China closed for alleged fire safety violations.

Informal retaliation provides “plausible deniability” against any charge of violating international trade rules, or accusations of explicit economic bullying. It also allows greater flexibility to deescalate retaliatory measures without appearing to be backing down from a dispute.

Wheat fields, South Australia (Wheat initiative/Flickr)

Like labelling rules or domestic health and safety regulations, WTO laws also provide avenues for plausibly deniable economic coercion.

While the proposed barley tariffs might appear to be remedies for Australia’s alleged violation of WTO rules, they may instead be legally “dressed up” informal economic sanctions.

As China has become increasingly adept at utilising WTO law, it has used trade rules for many legitimate purposes but also to retaliate against investigations and counter-measures introduced by other actors. Such retaliatory use of WTO law, particularly against the United States and European Union, has been extensively documented.

WTO rules also appear to have been leveraged by China as an additional means of imposing economic punishments during political disputes. The complexity and often highly contestable nature of anti-dumping investigations make them particularly conducive to maintaining plausible deniability.

Why target barley and beef?

If politics is a factor, part of the reason will likely be timing, because the imminent conclusion of China’s barley investigation provides the perfect legal mechanism to use as cover. In this telling, but for Australia’s call for a Covid-19 inquiry, Beijing would not be considering tariffs ­– an outcome some seemed cautiously optimistic about last year.

For beef, the logic would be the precedent of earlier labelling issues. Regardless of the merits of these concerns, the continuation of an existing issue provides a response to accusations of economic coercion.

The existence of plausible deniability means that the case that Beijing is leveraging barley and beef to make a political point is circumstantial.

Regardless, this episode illustrates the consequences of mixing politics and economics in international diplomacy. The spectre of Australian exporters losing two major export markets comes just weeks after China’s ambassador explicitly linked an ongoing political dispute to economic repercussions.

That linkage has now undermined the credibility of Beijing’s assertion that barley is just a “normal” investigation, or that labelling is the major concern with Australian beef exports.

Even if tariffs are not imposed and the beef issue is quickly resolved, the perception of China as an economic bully could well persist in the minds of some Australians. If it wanted to, Beijing could do much more to allay these fears.

For Australia, a testing friendship

Caps and trade wars (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Caps and trade wars (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 12 May 2020 16:30   0 Comments

It’s got nothing to do with Covid-19, but a fascinating short passage in Malcolm Turnbull’s new memoir is illustrative of the challenges Scott Morrison faces in dealing with US President Donald Trump, and how much Australia can rely on the US as it squares off in an increasingly sharp rhetorical fight with China over coronavirus.

Turnbull reflects on calls made while he was prime minister to dispatch Australian warships to probe inside the 12 nautical mile zone around China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, as the US Navy had done. But Turnbull resisted, concerned Beijing could escalate by ramming and disabling an Australian ship. He writes:

If the Americans backed us in, then the Chinese would back off. But if Washington hesitated or, for whatever reasons, decided not to or was unable immediately to intervene, then China would have achieved an enormous propaganda win, exposing the USA as a paper tiger not to be relied on by its allies.

I’ve written an article for the Council of Foreign Relations that explores this question about how much Australia can rely on the US in the context of Covid-19. It’s the type of question that tends to get subsumed in the political realm by all the talk of “mateship” and alliance with a capital A, yet Turnbull’s logic makes clear that every prime minister must ask it. I’ve deliberately begun my piece from the premise that managing relations with the US is the most testing issue in Australia’s foreign policy ­­­­– a characterisation I suspect is most usually applied these days to relations with China. But it is important to recognise that for all the tetchiness of dealing with Beijing, the demands and opportunities drawn from Washington of years in war and peace are greater. Sometimes friends can be hard work.

Speaking of, Morrison made clear when Turnbull was promoting his book that he wasn’t eager for advice from the man he had unseated in an intra-party challenge less than two years before. There is no doubt that Turnbull branding Trump a “bully” alongside China was a complication Morrison didn’t really need, particularly given the coincidence that the PM happened to speak to Trump by telephone on the day Turnbull’s book as formally launched ­– and we know what a penchant the President has for books that involve him, and his at-times demanding phone manner, which Turnbull and Morrison have both experienced.

Then–Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivers the keynote address to the Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, 2 June 2017 (Dominique Pineiro/Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/Flickr)

Yet political autobiographies are too often discounted as an exercise in score-settling and self-justification, or are read only for gossipy detail. Turnbull’s reflections are worth close examination as a guide to understanding the challenges that Australia’s leadership confronts in dealing with major powers, particularly the United States. As much as any autobiography will paint its principal subject in the kindest light, contemporaneous accounts of this type are instructive about the key debates and various sources of official advice on the big issues – themes that last well beyond the time in office of any one leader.

Turnbull was convinced by his own experience that “sucking up” was the wrong way to go, even as a considered strategy.

Turnbull reveals that Canberra had commissioned official psychological analysis of Trump, as every foreign capital would have, which recommended flattery to appeal to the narcissist. Australia’s diplomats also proposed concessions in a tax treaty in a bid to smooth over tensions, an idea Turnbull rejected. Having watched at close quarters Trump push around Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Turnbull was convinced by his own experience that “sucking up” was the wrong way to go, even as a considered strategy.

But it was the same principle he adopted with China. “I knew, from years of experience of dealing with bullies, that if you take a strong position on something and then back down under pressure, you’ll be mightily diminished,” Turnbull writes.

“We also knew, from first-hand experience,” he noted elsewhere, “that China’s policy towards other countries was thoroughly integrated. If a foreign nation disappointed China – for instance by criticising its conduct in some manner ­– then it could expect both criticism and economic consequences. Ministerial visits would be stopped … Chinese tourism would drop off, foreign business in China would be boycotted.”

And Morrison faces that very challenge, with recent threats of a consumer backlash followed by news today Beijing has slapped a ban on meat imports from four Australian abattoirs. It will invariabily been seen as retaliation, though Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has cautioned “we certainly don’t see any relationship and we would expect that no other counterpart country should see a relationship between those factors”.

“Sometimes”, Turnbull writes, “when a Chinese Customs official says an Australian exporter’s papers ‘are not in order’, they are, in fact, not in order”. Other times, he notes, this can very much be a political decision.

Either way, Morrison will be weighing just how much he can rely on friends.