Opinion article

The rise and rise of Asia's cities

The mega cities of Asia and their leaders may well come to shape the rules of Australia's neighbourhood with significant impact on Australia's foreign policy, write Susan Harris-Rimmer and Charuka Ekanayake.

Why focus on cities?

On 12 March 2013, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Chair of the Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40), tweeted: “While nations talk, cities act”.
Amidst trends in global urbanisation, cities are not only on the rise, but are evolving into serious global actors.
Nowhere is this trend more striking than in Australia’s neighbourhood – the Asia Pacific –where many of the world’s largest cities are emerging, with significant implications for the evolving policy dynamics of the region.
Sitting on the frontline of political, economic, social, and environmental challenges and innovation, cities today are engaged in global policy agendas. They are increasingly negotiating agreements, engaging global networks, and attracting the attention of multilateral actors from the UN to the World Bank.

City leaders and mayors are more frequently recognised as global figures with expanding political influence, responsibility, and ambition. They are actively challenging the state-centric nature of international law, trade, and diplomacy, and shaping global norms.

Take the example of Chicago and Mexico City mayors entering into a path-breaking city-to-city trade agreement (Global Cities Economic Partnership) in 2013. Closer to home, the sports partnership signed in 2018 between Tom Tate, Mayor of the City of Gold Coast, and Prime Minister O’Neill of Papua New Guinea offers another timely example.

Cities as global actors

Cities around the world are establishing Foreign Affairs or International Relations offices to develop their foreign policy initiatives and transnational relations with other cities, non-governmental and inter-governmental organisations, and nation states. 
The City of New York has gone a step further, appointing a quasi-ambassador, the Commissioner for International Affairs, Penny Abeywardena, to lead its diplomatic engagements.
Today’s ‘world cities’ are adept at entering into international agreements, including with each other. MoUs are the instruments of choice, rather than treaties; declaratory rather than legally binding. 

Power hubs of Asia

According to the 2015 State of Asian and Pacific Cities report, between 1980 and 2010, the cities across the Asia-Pacific grew by around one billion people, and are expected to grow a further one billion by 2040.
Half of the region’s population will be urban by the end of 2018. Rural areas are entering a period of overall population decline.
By 2050, cities in China and India alone will have grown by an additional 696 million –India by 404 million and China by 292 million.

The region is now home to 17 mega-cities, including the world’s three largest: Tokyo, Delhi and Shanghai.
By 2030, the region may have 22 mega-cities, some of these merging into mega-regions.

But what do we know of these rising Asian cities? What do we know about the international ambitions of Asian world cities, and how they might be realised?

Asia’s cities and their leaders may well come to shape the rules of Australia’s neighbourhood.
Emerging Asian cities are the focal points for the forces of globalism, urbanisation, and decentralisation in our region.

At the same time, they are contributing to regional and global problems and instabilities due to the rapid nature of their growth.

Cities and Australian foreign policy

The relentless trend towards urbanisation poses new opportunities for the Australian economy.
Growing Asian cities are likely to sustain a need for Australian minerals and energy.
Across Asia, rising middle classes will look to Australia as a source of premium agricultural products, education, tourism, health and aged care, and financial services.

People and ideas will be increasingly fluid across the region as they pursue better investment opportunities, education destinations, and new travel experiences. On many levels the outlook for Australia is positive.

But the rise of cities also brings deeper complexity and raises the prospect of new challenges and risks.

The increased movement of people, including refugees and those internally displaced, will add to social and economic pressures on cities while raising significant human rights responsibilities.
Increasing numbers will seriously test the capacity of city infrastructure and the delivery of key services – all while the potential for inequality, exploitation, and oppression looms large. 

Understanding cities

Australia needs to map and assess the implications of Asian cities as diplomatic actors and their impact on global governance as a matter of urgency. 
Asian world cities will most likely become cultural and financial hubs and prime sites of nation-branding.

Early signs suggest that they will seek to develop a global reach and reputation, and to be attractive and well-connected to the flows of capital, information, business, and labour.

As the urban population continues to increase, cities may come to offer innovative forms of governance on issues such as human rights, inequality and the rule of law.

For Australia, deeper engagement with Asia’s cities presents opportunities for greater strategic influence within the region.

For as the C40 website argues: “cities are where the future happens first”.
About the authors

Charuka Ekanayake

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Charuka Ekanayake is currently reading for his PhD in law at Griffith Law School, Australia. He also holds a Bachelor of Laws from the Queen Mary University, the United Kingdom and Master of Laws degrees from the United Nations Inter–regional Crime and Justice Research Institute, Italy and the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Charuka’s research interests include human rights law, public international law and the law of international organisations. 

Susan Harris Rimmer

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Susan Harris Rimmer is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Associate Professor at Griffith University Law School. She is author of Gender and Transitional Justice (Routledge 2010) and over 40 refereed works on women’s rights and international law. Susan was Australia’s representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2014, and the W20 (gender equity advice to the G20) in Turkey 2014, China 2016, and Germany 2017. She is a National Board member of the International Women’s Development Agency. Sue was named in the Apolitical list of Top 100 Global Experts in Gender Policy in May 2018.

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