Australia should flex soft power in Asia Pacific ‘neighbourhood’

From North Korean missiles tests, Malaysian elections and President Trump’s TAIPEI Act, the geopolitical drama of Asia Pacific continues with the world in COVID-19 lockdown.


Professor Caitlin Byrne, Director Griffith Asia Institute

Director of the Griffith Asia Institute Professor Caitlin Byrne recently spoke to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) podcast The Lowdown about the state of our Asia Pacific neighbourhood.

“We’ve been so focused on COVID-19 coverage, commentary and information, that it’s been really hard to get a sense of what else is happening, but things are happening in our region.

“There are still all these flashpoints playing out and I think we’ve got to be really mindful of that,” Professor Byrne said.

“There are still all these flashpoints playing out and I think we’ve got to be really mindful of that.”

She said as COVID-19 continued to spread, authoritarian countries and illiberal democracies were also cracking down on civil liberties putting pressure on human rights across Southeast Asia.

The art of diplomacy tested

Professor Byrne is also concerned about the effect lockdown is having on diplomacy as nations and communities close their borders to people, goods and services and also ideas.

“We are going to see diplomacy come under pressure and people are generally looking inward more than outward. The World Health Organisation has been at the forefront of global diplomacy on COVID-19.

“But it is coming under fire for its lack of leadership on some issues as is the United Nations and we haven’t really seen a strong statement come out from those big multilateral institutions.”


The rise of video conferencing technology to comply with social distancing will also create practical challenges for diplomats.

“Global leaders and diplomats are going to have to get used to not necessarily having the same cues and signals that you have when you’re in a room together. Will there be more emphasis on performance rather than authentic person to person engagement?

“We will see a real shift in the way that diplomacy plays out. I do think we will see more emphasis on regional diplomacy closer to home, rather than big multilateral organisations,” Professor Byrne said.

‘Soft power and hospitality start at home’

Professor Byrne expects a post COVID-19 world will recalibrate the political landscape elevating countries who have dealt with the virus competently and were able to manage the balance between human rights, public health and justice.

While Australia could benefit she said, it has neglected its responsibility to international students, tarnishing its chances of influencing the Asia Pacific as restlessness from China grows over its culpability in the pandemic.

“International students are an important part of our education system, whether we are talking tertiary, English language or vocational training and education and we should be really supporting them.”

“I think now is the time to really emphasise how much we value and recognise their place in our society.”

Additional reporting by Cailea Atkinson.

Listen to the The Lowdown podcast

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