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ASEAN Centrality in the Time of COVID-19

May 14, 2020

Southeast Asian countries have been stepping up efforts to prompt greater regional cooperation in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Last April 14, ASEAN and ASEAN Plus Three, or APT (ASEAN + China, Japan, South Korea) leaders held two virtual summits chaired by Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, as Hanoi plays ASEAN Chair this year. The two events build on several prior senior official and ministerial level meetings held internally by the bloc and with external partners. Several notable priority cooperation areas were identified. 

Fostering regional cooperation

APT, which covers East Asia, is a diverse and dynamic mega-region that includes one G7 and four G20 members. With varying levels of public healthcare and economic development, they include countries at different stages in their struggle against COVID-19. Some were already able to flatten and bring down the curve, but are still cautious about potential second wave outbreaks. Some continue to grapple with rising cases and has yet to reach the peak. Some are in the early stages of knowing the full extent of the crisis they are facing. Fostering cooperation can facilitate the flow of needed medical supplies, like masks and test kits, and sharing of best practices from countries that were ahead in the pack to those that are trailing behind. China, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan already extended medical aid to ASEAN countries, with Vietnam and Singapore also contributing their share. Because of their poor healthcare systems, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, on the other hand, may require greater assistance.    

Since February, ASEAN had convened, as well as engaged its dialogue partners, several times to tackle the different dimensions of the spreading pandemic. Out of safety concerns, most of these meetings were conducted virtually. ASEAN defense ministers and APT senior officials on health development met in February, economic ministers in March, and health ministers in early April.  Foreign ministers from ASEAN and China gathered in Laos last February, a virtual ASEAN-EU ministerial videoconference took place last March and an ASEAN-US high-level interagency videoconference happened in early April. Last April 22, foreign ministers from ASEAN and US also met virtually.

These meetings and engagements indicate ASEAN’s appreciation of the health, social, security, and economic fallout from the pandemic, the urgency of getting their acts together and onboarding more partners. In the APT meeting, for instance, the thirteen heads of states were joined by ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi and World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Amidst criticisms of the WHO’s handling of the pandemic and withdrawal of United States’ funding for it, APT countries continue to stress the crucial role it plays in controlling and containing the spread of COVID-19.

Harmonizing responses

Eight key cooperation areas were outlined in the two virtual summits. The first is strengthening early warning systems for pandemics, promoting timely and transparent exchanges of real-time information, and sharing of experience and best practices. Given past outbreaks, from SARS, avian flu to MERS-COV, and the severity of this current pandemic, this cannot be understated. Lessons from these past outbreaks increased the readiness of regional countries like South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

Second is ensuring adequate provision of essential medical supplies and equipment, such as diagnostic tools and personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers. As some countries wrangle over increasingly scarce medical supplies, it is important for the region to ensure adequate supplies to meet the requirements of its members, including those that would be disadvantaged in any bidding wars. In the first two months of the year, medical supplies from Japan, South Korea and ASEAN flowed to China but by mid-March onwards, the trend has reversed as China’s medical manufacturing capacity picked up. By early April, Beijing was joined by Hanoi and Taipei which also launched their own versions of medical diplomacy. 

Third is investing in health capacity building through training and exchanges with a network of regional scientific and public health emergency experts. ASEAN Center of Military Medicine, for instance, held a tabletop exercise on public health emergency response and the Network of ASEAN Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Defense Experts promoted scientific and professional linkages. ASEAN members also considered adopting standard operating procedures for health crises. Harmonizing measures to detect and respond to new outbreaks will enhance the region’s ability to deal with pandemics.

Fourth is enhancing public communication and countering misinformation. Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, for instance, arrested people sowing fear and panic through fake news. This said, some raised worries that some regional capitals may clamp down on critics using the pandemic as cover.  

The fifth is establishing a regional medical supply reserve and tapping regional warehouses for this purpose. The coronavirus exposed the inability of present supplies to meet burgeoning demand, hence this proposal is certainly salient. It will allow member countries to tap into an existing standby regional stockpile.

Sixth is ensuring food security amidst the pandemic by tapping into the APT Emergency Rice Reserve. Officially launched in 2013, this mechanism aims to meet food requirements during emergencies. As agricultural production suffers from quarantine and logistics constraints, such a ready buffer can ensure ample, even if short-term, food supply to feed people stuck at home, especially vulnerable populations like the urban poor.

Seventh is the creation of a COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund. This would be funded by reallocations from existing ASEAN-China and APT cooperation funds and be opened for support from other ASEAN external partners. The fund can be used to procure medical supplies and support research and development of antiviral drugs and vaccines. Finally, a policy stimulus, a key element for post-pandemic recovery, was also discussed. Such intervention will provide much-needed relief to workers and businesses, in particular, micro and small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), which were seriously struck by the pandemic. The APT summit, for one, underscored how leveraging technologies and digital trade can allow businesses to keep operations. East Asia is a huge market for mobile and online commerce with Southeast Asia emerging as a new frontier. With some form of travel restrictions and social distancing likely to continue until a vaccine gets rolled out, the pandemic may open more virtual business opportunities.  

Indeed, pandemic management may not be ASEAN’s envisioned agenda for this year, but the haste by which it changed gears attests to its dexterity and responsiveness. This said, disputes like the South China Sea continue to distract and undermine cooperative undertakings, especially between China and Southeast Asian claimants. Blame games and the contest for narratives between ASEAN’s two principal dialogue partners, US and China, also intensify as a conspicuous sideshow to the pandemic. In this time of great challenge, cohesion is paramount. Thus, ASEAN centrality remains an organizing principle in any regional efforts to combat COVID-19. As some regional organizations fumble in their responses, ASEAN and its partners continue to show progress in fostering coordination and mutual aid despite pressing individual national demands. 

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