COVID-19 has drastically altered the existing economic landscape. An underlying feature is the need to social distance. As such, societies have had to rapidly adapt to digital transformation. Digitalisation is beneficial in its ability to empower individuals and communities with access to the internet, improving the standard of living through digital applications. For example, the use of digital technology in health care such as BruHealth in Brunei or in agriculture such as MyAgri in Indonesia. As such, digital transformation strengthens resilience and productivity. ASEAN and Australia collectively have much to gain in the digital revolution. Nonetheless, the rapid digital change accelerated by the pandemic will require concurrent institutional change to mitigate the negative consequences of inequality.
Therefore, while digital transformation should be an objective for nation states because of the enormous potential benefit gain – it has the ability to widen the digital divide between the ‘have’s and have not’s’, such as a metropolitan suburb with 4G internet connectivity that enables the proliferation of e-commerce activity, and a rural village without any digital infrastructure and is thus unable to adopt digital technology, let alone accessing the internet. Therefore, it is crucial that countries ensure that digital transformation remains inclusive and accessible for sustained post-pandemic recovery.
The relationship between ASEAN and Australia as Strategic Partners forms the basis for greater collaboration in digital technology. While there are already measures in place such as the ASEAN-Australia Digital Trade Standards joint initiative, which provides a framework to promote digital trade in the region; the ASEAN Australia Smart Cities Trust Fund, whereby Australia provides training and technical assistance to build resilient and competitive communities in ASEAN and other multilateral and bilateral free trade agreements, the relationship between ASEAN and Australia is important and should be developed with a digital emphasis for sustained and inclusive post-pandemic recovery.
To strengthen this relationship and promote shared prosperity, ASEAN and Australia should take a collaborative digital approach with an emphasis on supporting the development of digital ecosystems in all countries. Through multilateral cooperation, countries can adopt a platform for the sharing of best practices in digital regulation and frameworks to ensure sustainable, inclusive, and resilient post-pandemic recovery. This will enable countries to leverage on the comparative advantage of more technologically advanced nations, whilst ensuring that inclusive economic growth and development can take place throughout the region.
This is in the interest of all countries, as it will enable both ASEAN and Australia to better position itself in the midst of a strategic recalibration of US-China relations. Closer regional integration for the sharing of capacity, knowledge and best practices will further enhance post-pandemic recovery by enabling the convergence of digital policies and regulatory framework between nation states supporting the development of a unified digital ecosystem. This will enable the region to maximise the potential of digital technology and strengthen the bloc’s economic merit.
Notwithstanding, it is important to consider that the economic interests of countries in ASEAN and Australia are not necessarily aligned, and therefore, this collaboration will require good-will from technologically advanced nation states. Additionally, it is hoped that the willingness of ASEAN and Australia as a region with close political and economic cooperation forged over the last few decades will support the implementation of a collaborative approach to digital transformation and the development of a robust digital ecosystem that is inclusive and resilient.
The Commonwealth can provide a lesson that can be replicated between ASEAN and Australia in providing the framework for this relationship. For example, the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda, a recent programme initiated in 2018 seeks to strengthen the political association’s physical, digital, regulatory, supply-side, and business-to-business connectivity by sharing best practices, policies and peer learning to promote trade and investment between member states. This is coordinated through a dedicated team at the Commonwealth Secretariat, to support the development of its objectives. A recent initiative is an E-learning course on Digital Infrastructure and the Digital Divide to promote capacity building among stakeholders. Similarly, ASEAN and Australia can consider implementing a coordinated team to help achieve closer digital collaboration between nation states.
ASEAN and Australia will play a crucial role in the region in the next few decades. Brunei’s 2021 Chairmanship of ASEAN was based on the theme “We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper”, providing a vision of a unified region that prospers together. For shared prosperity to take place in the face of a raging global pandemic, it is crucial that ASEAN and Australia promote stronger regional collaboration in digital transformation that is pragmatic, practical, and leads to credible results; while considering current regional cooperation and the needs of both developed and developing countries, to ensure that no country is left behind.