Risk is always changing. Looking at Asia’s threat landscape five years ago, issues of economic instability, climate change, cybersecurity, and pandemic disease were all part of this matrix. However, at the time, some of these risks were viewed as immediate and present, while others were vulnerabilities to be planned for. Today, these threats have all proved to have significant impact, but none more so than COVID-19.
The pandemic has emphasized and accelerated the need for a reorientation of business continuity and resilience. Multinational and multilateral organizations must evaluate their enterprise security and adapt.
In Asia this is particularly important as the region has demonstrated tremendous prosperity with a large and growing middle class and increasing influence in global policy developments within organizations such as the G-8 and G20. Simply put, the stakes are too high to not be prepared.
To move forward, the current threat landscape must be understood, and risk mitigation and management must be viewed through the lens of vaccine distribution and herd immunity, geo-political consideration, and regional political unrest.
Threat Landscape Primer
In December 2020, G4S published its Asia Emerging Risks report evaluating political stability, crime, terrorism, civil unrest, emergency response capabilities, health and environmental threats. In just six months, the landscape has already changed, and so corporations too must adapt their outlook as they consider how they do business in the region. Factors to consider in that process of adaptation include the ability to resume work and travel, which depends to a large degree on the vaccination programs that are being undertaken country by country across the region.
Almost all countries in the region have commenced their vaccination programs, though there is great diversity in the targets of the rollouts, the scheduling and pace of the campaigns, and the vaccines used. Some countries are further ahead than others, but overall, the results give grounds for cautious optimism as outbreaks are contained and the spread of the virus is slowly brought under control. Most countries are prioritizing their frontline health workers first, then moving on in phased rollouts to other sections of the population that are likely to run through 2022 for most countries in the region and 2023 for some.
One key focus for business is the degree to which countries are permitting private sector involvement in their vaccination campaigns. A number of Asian countries have already made progress. For example, India has initiated talks between its health ministry, manufacturers and private hospitals after the private sector sought a bigger role in the vaccination drive. Indonesia looks set to allow private companies to acquire vaccines from state-owned distributors with which to inoculate their employees. Similarly, the Federation of Thai Industries (FTI) has said it aims to procure 100,000 doses of China's Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine to be used and paid for by businesses in the first phase of a private sector vaccination scheme.
Geo-Political Game Changers
Some Asian countries that have started their vaccination programs are already considering travel certificates and ‘bubbles’ that will facilitate the arrival of business travelers and tourists between countries that have made mutual agreements to do so. Among the first of these could be Thailand, which plans from April to reduce its quarantine times for people who have been vaccinated, and Australia-Singapore, who are jointly planning to facilitate travel between them. China and numerous other countries are also working on issuing international travel certificates to ease travel. These will become an essential part of business operations and commercial life and will be a major boost to revitalizing the travel industry.
In terms of geo-political considerations, the region remains subject to several tensions. U.S.-China policy has recently shifted given the sanctions the Biden administration and other U.S. allies levied as a result of the violations committed against the Uyghurs in Western China’s Xinjiang province. China is also under pressure from India, with the countries engaged in a tense recent standoff over their shared border as well as a series of bans by India of Chinese-made apps and online payment platforms.
These disputes threaten to drive a divide between a global internet that is free and open and one that is subject to regional controls and restrictions. In the regional space, Japan and Australia remain prominent and perhaps more so with a recent meeting of the Quad; the four-member gathering that they are party to along with the United States and India. It is likely that this grouping will seek a more constructive role in regional affairs, serving to balance the growing power and influence of China.
Shifting Political Tides
Besides the Quad, which is just beginning to carve out a trajectory in the region, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been a key player for decades and the increasing interconnectivity of their economic activities is enhancing growth in member countries. ASEAN, however, is not designed to have a security role, and in the case of an event such as the military coup that took place in Myanmar in February, can only offer mild disapproval rather than firm consequences.
While few had predicted that such a coup would be launched, the signs were clearly there when Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide victory. The country’s military stated their dissatisfaction, and the result has been the deaths of more than 80 people (as of writing), killed in the protests following this significant breakdown in government, along with the detention of political leaders, the intermittent loss of infrastructure and communication services, and the threat of renewed international sanctions following Myanmar’s few short years of nascent democracy.
In a sign that the political tides may be shifting, individual countries continue to struggle with popular protest movements calling for greater democracy. China has firmly crushed the opposition movement that emerged in Hong Kong with the new Security Law, the tenets of which have significant potential impacts for businesses operating there. But the lessons learned in Hong Kong proved valuable for protest movements that have emerged elsewhere, such as in Thailand where a pro-democracy movement of activists and students seeks widespread constitutional and political reform, and even in Myanmar, where the three-fingered salute first popularized in “Hunger Games” has signified popular resistance to the military regime.
Chief Security Officers (CSOs) and other enterprise security leaders need to adapt to the changing risk landscape that is emerging in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ability to source materials and equipment, initiate measures and implement the practical steps required to address the health emergency at the height of the pandemic will need to be maintained indefinitely. Travel risk management has been altered to accommodate a massive reduction in journeys and a focus on safe working practices. Countries of operation may have suffered significant downturns in GDP and social pressures may drive even greater risk. At the same time, the threats and vulnerabilities that were present before the pandemic are still present now and will require a renewed focus on business continuity and contingency planning, crisis management and resilience culture, and a new paradigm for risk mitigation.