The culturally and ethnically diverse region of East and South-East Asia is the most populous in the world and an economic powerhouse. Ten of the 11 states of South-East Asia are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and engage closely in terms of trade and investment with East Asian countries such as China and South Korea.
For the past decade, the region has shown a sustained decline in the incidence of poverty and income inequality, along with improvements in the Human Development Index for countries in the region. The ASEAN economy has consistently outperformed the global economy. Growth of the region’s GDP has remained close to 5.0% since 2011, while global GDP stayed below 4.0% over the same period.
ASEAN remains the fifth largest economy in the world, with a combined GDP of A$4.8 trillion in 2018. However, during 2019–20 the region experienced negative impacts from United States–China trade tensions. Based on the most recent Asian Development Bank data, ASEAN nations demonstrated less growth than anticipated (4.8%) leading in to 2020. Despite growing uncertainties in the global economy, ASEAN’s total trade was A$4.5 trillion in 2018 and the region attracted A$250 billion of investment. Economic integration continues to contribute towards the region’s emerging position as a global growth driver. In 2018, intra-ASEAN trade made up the largest share of ASEAN’s total trade at 23.0%, and foreign direct investment inflows accounted for 15.9%.
Although agriculture only contributes around 105 of total ASEAN GDP, it is the main sector for employment in most member states, accounting for approximately one-third of total ASEAN employment. The development of the food, agriculture and forestry sector is vital to ensuring equitable and inclusive growth in the region.
Food security, food safety and better nutrition remain priority concerns for ASEAN and are included among the association’s goals of agricultural cooperation. More recently, there is increasing support for women’s economic empowerment, which has become a prominent approach to addressing gender gaps in economic spheres, including agriculture.
Investment in the agriculture sector is increasing in the region, growing from US$0.4 billion in 2010 to US$5.5 billion in 2018. South-East Asia is now the largest single focus of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Agriculture is also an important trade sector within some member states. For instance, Myanmar has the largest share of agricultural products in the country’s total exports at 28.0% in 2018, followed by Indonesia (19.3%) and Laos (18.4%). The share of agricultural products in total imports in 2018 were highest in Myanmar (13.3%), followed by Laos (12.5%), Brunei Darussalam (12.3%) and the Philippines (11.6%).
Countries in the ACIAR East and South-East Asia region
Drivers of regional collaboration
ASEAN has more than 50 years of experience on regional collaboration to address shared challenges and engage with trade and development partners, including Australia and China. More recently, regional collaboration has been marked by critical factors such as geopolitics and transboundary concerns.
Even though trade and investment are the major drivers of economic growth, development assistance is still a critical factor for development and regional cooperation for ASEAN nations. Recently, official development assistance (ODA) to ASEAN countries has increased, with the most prominent of these being China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This initiative aims to integrate ASEAN and other Asian economies with China by financing extensive interconnecting infrastructure in the region. The ASEAN countries are now the single largest regional focus of the Belt and Road initiative.
Cross-border challenges such as plant and animal biosecurity remain prominent and also drive regional integration. In the Mekong Region alone, plant diseases have recently spread across borders, destroying crops of cassava (cassava mosaic disease and cassava witches’ broom) and banana (Fusarium wilt).
In the midst of these plant diseases, the ASEAN region has experienced African swine fever, which has destroyed large populations of pigs, caused serious production losses and taken a tremendous economic toll on countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos and Cambodia. During 2020–21, biosecurity will be an increased priority for ASEAN nations.
Shared concerns about imminent and increasing threats posed by climate change has resulted in ASEAN creating a ‘framework of ASEAN community building, with strategies and actions to enhance regional and international cooperation in supporting adaptation’. In the field of agricultural research and development, regional cooperation plays a significant role, particularly in regard to increasing resilience and adaptation to climate change, natural disasters and other shocks.
The South-East Asia region is one of the most natural disaster-prone in the world, threatening food security and rural livelihoods. Natural disasters can cause economic consequences for the whole region, so disaster mitigation is a common interest among neighbouring countries. ASEAN leaders signed the ASEAN Declaration on One ASEAN One Response, which aims to increase the speed, scale and solidarity of disaster response in the region.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 in the region in 2020 has further driven the imperative for regional cooperation in health and trade. Australia’s Partnerships for Recovery: Australia’s COVID-19 Development Response notes:
South-East Asian countries face crises on multiple fronts. Mega-cities in the region are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the disease. The International Monetary Fund predicts growth in Asia will stall in 2020, resulting in a recession far worse than the 1997–98 Asian Financial Crisis. A region characterised by rapid growth before the pandemic, and where Australia has been building economic and strategic partnerships, is facing a significant setback. Unemployment is rising. Government revenues are falling precipitously just as demands for expenditure on health and social protection programs are rising steeply. The already fragile social contract could be tested in a number of countries, with risks of political upheaval that could threaten regional stability.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ACIAR is supporting an assessment of food system security, resilience and emerging risks in the Indo-Pacific in the context of COVID-19. This assessment is monitoring, documenting and analysing food systems vulnerabilities resulting from the COVID-19 crisis and their impacts on smallholder farmers. It will identify possible actions that could be taken by governments and other food systems stakeholders to increase food systems resilience in the face of future shocks. While the assessment includes the whole region, there is a particular focus on Indonesia and Philippines as case studies. This assessment may influence future ACIAR investments in the region.
ACIAR program in the region
The ACIAR program in East and South-East Asia remains the largest of the four regions in which ACIAR operates. It is characterised by strong bilateral collaboration based on robust national research systems, longstanding diplomatic connections and sustained development collaboration with Australia.
While the nature of ACIAR engagement within the region is strongly bilateral, there is a growing trend towards regional collaboration between countries facing shared challenges (as described in the previous section). This is consistent with the research partnerships under ASEAN, which acknowledge that collaboration among member states is a sensible path towards addressing common challenges in the region.
The ASEAN drive towards regional economic integration and connectivity will increase demand from individual countries and regional bodies for research support that harmonises approaches in some agricultural issues across countries, including biosecurity, food safety and climate resilience. ACIAR contributes to this by funding regional research collaboration and through its support and chairmanship of APAARI.
Among newer regional collaborations are efforts to identify efficient biosecurity risk-management systems in the region to respond to prominent outbreaks affecting plant and animal health. For example, Indonesia, the Philippines and Laos are all involved in regional research focusing on an integrated system to manage Fusarium wilt (Panama disease) in banana crops, with components of biosecurity and disease management. The uncontrolled transboundary exchanges of banana planting material (in vitro plants) led to a rapid spread of Fusarium Tropical Race 4, the strain affecting Cavendish bananas. The disease has made thousands of hectares of land unsuitable for Cavendish banana cultivation and negatively impacted rural livelihoods.
Another research collaboration focusing on plant biosecurity engages the whole of the Mekong Region (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam), and includes China. Cassava production in the Mekong Region is a commercial activity. The crop is cultivated to meet the rapidly growing regional and global demand for animal feed, starch-based products, ethanol and biofuel, and there is significant cross-border trade in planting and raw materials. Two serious diseases are spreading in the region through the movement of infected stems, with secondary infection via invertebrate vectors. The ACIAR project consists of a multipronged strategy involving breeding, surveillance, agronomy and seed systems interventions, coupled with engagement with government institutions and agribusiness.
The incursion of African swine fever to the region in 2019 has also provided a strong context for regional collaboration in One Health. An ACIAR regional research collaboration that involves Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos seeks to understand how veterinary service markets might be better managed and governed by agents of government interested in human health, in cooperation with agents interested in agriculture and animal health. In Indonesia, a new project focuses on sustainable agricultural development by addressing the direct association between agricultural activities and zoonotic malaria transmission. This work also aligns with the ACIAR strategic objectives of enhancing human nutrition and reducing risks to human health.
Trilateral collaboration and new partnership models are emerging for ACIAR in the East and South-East Asia region. Driving these new partnership models are greater capacities that can be achieved when resources are pooled. This is translating into substantial co-investment from partners such as China, Vietnam and the Philippines. While bilateral relationships remain the predominant model for development cooperation in the region, trilateral collaboration has increased with each partner country bringing in funds, expertise and other resources into joint initiatives.
Opportunities for trilateral research collaboration with Australia in the region include varietal development to manage devastating new diseases in banana, cassava and citrus; machinery innovation for conservation agriculture among smallholder farmers; and research to develop perennial rice varieties. A serious biosecurity issue in the citrus industry (citrus greening disease) is being addressed through trilateral collaboration involving China, Indonesia and Australia. This collaboration is identifying management strategies to better protect the citrus industries in China and Indonesia, and helping the Australian citrus industry to be prepared in the event of an incursion.
During 2020–21, 100 ACIAR-supported projects will be active in the East and South-East Asia region (Table 5.2).
Research for One Health Systems Strengthening
One Health is an approach that recognises that the health of people, animals and the environment are interconnected. Approximately 75% of newly emerging infectious diseases are zoonoses (diseases that can transmit from animals to humans) that arise as a result of one or several factors that are anthropogenic, genetic, ecologic, socioeconomic and climatic in origin. Across the Indo-Pacific region, animal production systems are changing rapidly; however, local and regional capacity to diagnose, treat and control diseases is generally weak and under-resourced.
Projects in the Pacific region
- A One Health approach to establish surveillance strategies for Japanese encephalitis and zoonotic arboviruses in Papua New Guinea (LS/2018/213)
- Drug sensitive and resistant tuberculosis and zoonotic infections as causes of lymphadenitis in two provinces in Papua New Guinea (LS/2018/217)
- Enhancing the management of antimicrobial resistance in Fiji (LS/2019/119)
Projects in South-East Asia
Notes: More details (including project leader, commissioned organisation and partner organisations) are provided in the appendixes. The project list was compiled during July 2020. Additional projects, not listed in this table, may be commissioned during 2020–21.