Opinion article

Australia in the Asia-Pacific: the state of the neighbourhood

Ahead of CEDA's annual forum on Australia's relationship with our international neighbours, Griffith University, Griffith Asia Institute Senior Research Assistant, Dr Lucy West, summarises some of the key political, economic and environmental issues in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Griffith University is releasing its annual State of the Neighbourhood report in conjunction with CEDA’s ‘The Neighbourhood Forum’ in Brisbane on 11 October. Using expertise from the Griffith Asia Institute’s industry and academic partners, the report provides an overview of the key foreign, economic and development issues affecting Australia and its neighbours in Asia.
Many of last year’s key political challenges remain powerfully present, including economic nationalism, creeping authoritarianism and Beijing’s global ambitions. In addition to these issues, 2019 has seen the United States and some Asian corporations pursue a policy of decoupling from China; a renewed interest in Pacific island countries, in particular from Australian politicians; and Beijing’s economic diplomacy used to test the loyalty of partnerships in the region.

Protectionist trade measures and a China slowdown are forecast to be prominent economic issues for the Asia-Pacific region in the year ahead. Australian policy makers and industry leaders are likely to witness significant changes to the international trade landscape if India joins APEC and the RCEP trade deal is finalised. Once in effect, RCEP will be the world’s largest trading bloc and the economic architecture of the Indo-Pacific. The economic outcomes for Australian exporters are expected to be substantial.

When it comes to Australia’s foreign policy in the Pacific, there is no denying that under the ‘Pacific step-up’, engagement points between Australia and Pacific island countries have increased in recent times. But has quantity translated to quality? There are also opportunities for the Australian government and private sector to enhance their engagement with Pacific island countries through practical measures such as enhancing business links.

As the strategic dynamics of the neighbourhood change shape, the case for deepening Queensland’s Asia-Pacific engagement has never been stronger. Queensland’s engagement with the economies of ASEAN has produced some key successes, but certain gaps still persist. Through soft power initiatives and sustained investment in cultural and gender diversity to better navigate the region’s nuanced business and political landscapes, government and industry leaders can deepen Queensland’s engagement with its Asia-Pacific neighbours.

Changing climate conditions will disrupt existing supply chains, but will also create new opportunities for innovative product development and delivery. This is where the private sector has an increasingly important role to play in delivering effective and robust climate adaption strategies. Thinking ahead in this space will see many businesses working in partnership with governments and the public to develop stronger, more resilient and equal communities and economies.

The rise of authoritarian politics, human rights concerns and corruption are worrying features of Southeast Asia’s rule of law landscape. Australian businesses operating in the region need a richer understanding of local rule of law to better navigate commercial and regulatory environments. With the Australian business community eager to increase investments in the region, it will only become more important for the Australian private sector to actively support a more robust rule of law in the region.

Across the Asia Pacific the need to invest in water governance is critical for environmental and economic security. By 2050, it is estimated that up to 3.4 billion people could be living in water-stressed areas, given the projected increases in water demand for food production, domestic supply, manufacturing and electricity production. Growing concerns about the environmental and social costs of water pollution and over-allocation will undoubtedly stimulate further demand for Australian expertise over the coming decade and open up new opportunities for private-sector investment in on-ground water governance projects.
About the authors

Lucy West

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Lucy West is a research associate with the Griffith Asia Institute and a sessional lecturer in the Griffith University School of Government and International Relations. Lucy’s research interests include the rule of law and legal reform in Southeast Asia, with a focus on Cambodia, and international relations of the Asia Pacific.

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