Effective diplomacy in the COVID era

In late July, the Asia New Zealand Foundation hosted an Australia, ASEAN, New Zealand (AANZ) experts’ dialogue on diplomacy in a COVID era – focusing on medium and small powers influencing global power. The Foundation’s director of research and engagement Suzannah Jessep reflects on the dialogue and the discussions that came out of it.
Two women wearing masks while serving customers from a street stall

Suzannah Jessep: "Like any good pairing, we are looking for partners who are a good match..."

New Zealand knows it is not the only country to have successfully isolated itself from the worst of the COVID-19 virus.

In our region, countries like Vietnam and Singapore have also managed to keep infection rates down and contain major outbreaks. Others, like Thailand, have tried to balance the health and economic needs of their citizens so that they are isolated socially but connected economically.

At the recent AANZ experts’ dialogue, some likened our existence to living in a gilded cage. We are safe and well inside our beautiful bubble but – while travel restrictions remain in place – also effectively trapped. 

Out in the Asia-Pacific region, conversations are starting to take place about how we can start to build safe passages and ‘green lanes’ between countries and states. Pacific governments are looking in detail at how they can facilitate the movement of goods, followed by people, and when the time might be right to open these lanes.

Like any good pairing, we are looking for partners who are a good match: who have the same effective measures in place to contain and control the virus, and with whom connectivity would be mutually beneficial.

It is not a zero-risk arrangement. Everyone understands the struggle against COVID-19 is going to take time and that total elimination, like denuclearisation, may never be achieved. If anything, we may need to learn to get used to more uncertainty and perhaps some instability. No one thinks discovering and distributing a COVID vaccine is going to be a cakewalk.  

We only need to look at the intensifying rivalry between the US and China to know that our region is a contested space. Of course, there is some pre-Presidential election posturing going on, but even before Trump, the two major powers have been locked in a race for influence and control and neither like the idea of one eclipsing the other.    

Domestic events have also been putting our region under pressure. We can recall the horrific scenes in Australia as it battled months of devastating bushfires that indiscriminately swept across south and central Australia, taking lives, houses, and livelihoods in waves of flame. And then the virus hit. And then China’s trade ban. Australians could be forgiven for wanting a break from it all. 

A polluted city waterway with shacks on its banks

While COVID has taken centre stage, the Asia-Pacific region continues to grapple with perennial problems such as pollution and overfishing

Others in our region have been contending with water scarcity, overfishing, pollution, refugee flows, natural disasters, and civil unrest. These challenges remain live in the background of COVID. The pandemic has just made the situation that much more complex, and the resources we have available to address them that much scarcer.

Some in our dialogue warned of a "dirty recovery" where countries pull out and away from shared interests such as combating climate change and reducing emissions in favour of domestic priorities and short-term gains. The risk to official development assistance is similarly stark – if countries are feeling the pinch, then development spending risks getting cut.    

But no one is talking about retiring to the living room just yet. No one wishes to see the US and China dictate the terms of our recovery, or see our common objectives dropped. No one in our region is contemplating closing their doors forever to the outside world. And even if the COVID rebuild is going to be tough, there is a sense of comradery among our Southeast Asia neighbours.

We need each other to trade, but we also need each other as small and middle-sized countries if we are to have a shot at shaping the rules that are going to govern our futures.

This is something that the members of ASEAN know well. It is not necessary that we share the same belief systems, cultures or foods – even though we know from research these things bring us closer together as people – we just have to understand the importance of working in unison and focussing on where our interests align.

Over the years, this process has led to the development of regional architecture that has provided the framework for regional relations for the last several decades. These are the rules that are being tested by China, as it grows, and the multilateral organisations that the US is stepping away from, as it pursues unilateral action.

We were reminded by those who joined our dialogue, however, that the US and China together account for only 30 percent of global GDP. The remaining 70 percent – and that includes New Zealand’s trade with ASEAN – had more agency than their individual stats might suggest. Counted individually, we don’t amount to much. Counted as a collective, and we are the majority.

The challenge now is how to bring that 70 percent together in a way that might provide some regional leadership to countries feeling the strain of COVID and other domestic challenges, and the pressure of major power rivalry.

As we head towards the New Zealand General Election, foreign policy (New Zealand’s relation’s with the world) is unlikely to play much of a part of our political discourse. It's important to acknowledge, however, that these relations – with friends the region who are also focused like us on protecting our people and economic interests – offer us an important means of amplifying our voice in the Asia-Pacific region.

By working with ASEAN countries such as Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia we have a chance to shape the rules in which we operate; the standards by which we connect; and to ensure the equal and fair treatment of states, no matter their size or military might. If we don't, we can expect the coming years – which are already looking pretty rocky by any measure - to be that much harder. 

About the author

Suzannah Jessep

Suzannah Jessep

Suzannah Jessep joined the Foundation in March 2019 after serving as New Zealand’s Deputy High Commissioner to India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Deputy Ambassador to Nepal and as New Zealand’s Deputy High Commissioner to Vanuatu. During her thirteen years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, she also served in the Ministry’s Australia, Pacific and Europe Divisions, and in the area of Antarctic and security policy.