Rebekah Baynard-Smith | Indo-Pacific Fellow
With the impacts of climate change looming, it has never been a more vital time to prioritise clean and green principles in areas of physical infrastructure, as well as the social, political and institutional infrastructure across the Indo-Pacific.
Thanks to significantly reduced human activity during COVID-19, ecosystems have flourished, and cities which are typically polluted have enjoyed clearer skies and cleaner air. COVID-19 presents a significant opportunity to recalibrate how development, infrastructure investment and geopolitics are positioned to make the post-virus era one that is truly liveable, breathable and prosperous.
There is no denying the economic opportunities that accompany infrastructure investment. Indonesia is an example of where infrastructure for economic recovery in a post-COVID-19 world will result in much needed employment, the opening of new markets and improved efficiencies. Foreign infrastructure initiatives can offer up to US$1 trillion of vital funding for a range of projects addressing transport, digital connectivity and energy. However, amongst the economic opportunities, the geopolitics at play cannot be ignored.
As an archipelago of strategic economic, geographical and political importance, Indonesia is vulnerable to becoming a battleground for influence in the region. Infrastructure investment such as from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure certainly serve more than economic purposes alone. Foreign influence through infrastructure investment is leveraged to meet diplomatic and strategic objectives of the donor governments; diplomatic side-payments, re-shaping of economic dependencies and institutional architecture are all common tactics employed to increase influence.
Aside from the economic and geopolitical factors behind donor agendas, the efficacy and viability of investments must also be questioned and scrutinised for their contribution in the fight against environmental degradation, resource scarcity, climate change and natural disasters. Do the projects position the beneficiary country to put its best foot forward in reducing emissions? Do they support the country’s capacity to withstand sudden-onset disasters such as flooding, earthquakes and heatwaves? Do they contribute to and not contradict efforts to limit drought, deforestation and resource scarcity such as depleting fish stocks or arable land?
With the BRI comprising an overwhelming proportion of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) infrastructure portfolio, these projects must be examined according to their long-term environmental and ecological impacts. Chinese funded and constructed energy infrastructure across ASEAN, dominated by hydroelectric dams (approx. 50,000 megawatts), is criticised for being beset by environmental issues. The widespread prevalence of hydropower dams (completed and planned) in the Lower Mekong River Basin has raised serious concerns about the potential for disruption of the river’s major fisheries as water, sediment and nutrient flows are altered, reduced or mismanaged. The dam infrastructure in China’s Yunnan Province and in Lao PDR have already exacerbated the 2019-2020 drought devastating the Lower Mekong River Basin countries. The record-low water levels, food insecurity and saltwater intrusion have ravaged the health and livelihoods of some 70 million people.
Given Australia’s low level of green energy credibility, its role in tackling some of the Indo-Pacific’s pressing infrastructure issues through development funds and diplomatic objectives is somewhat ambiguous. However, the following three examples demonstrate some avenues through which Australia is operating in multi-lateral collaboration to realise opportunities to bolster green finance, investment and energy in the region.
The first is its historical relationship with the Asia Development Bank (ADB). Since its inception in 1966, Australia has contributed close to US$8.5 billion. ADB’s ‘build-back-better’ approach harnesses opportunities to climate- and hazard-proof new assets following disasters, supporting sustainable and renewable energy infrastructure such as wind power across the Indo-Pacific.
The second is Australia’s trilateral aid partnership, with America and Japan, established in November 2018. Under this partnership, infrastructure development commits to upholding high global standards, not only in their durability and physical quality (a criticised weakness of BRI), but also in social, labour and environmental standards, aimed at enhancing resilience, self-sufficiency and national sovereignty.
Thirdly, Australia can further harness its role as a development partner of inter-governmental organisations such as ASEAN and the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The MRC, for example, is crucial for strengthening negotiating positions for the fair distribution of water and river management throughout the region. This is essential for not only holding China’s infrastructure projects to account, but to ensure responsible resource management for enhanced social, economic and environmental development in these respective countries.
With the Indo-Pacific region on the front lines of intensified climate change impacts, prosperity in the region must be understood not only in economic terms, but also in social and environmental. Australia cannot and should not compete with China to build ‘bigger bridges and wider roads’, but must maintain its commitments to agencies like the ADB, its trilateral aid partnership and support of inter-governmental organisations like the MRC. Australia plays a vital role in ensuring that the region’s post-COVID-19 ‘build-back-better’ approach can prioritise wholistic and climate-oriented objectives that tackle common and shared regional issues.
Rebekah Baynard-Smith is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.