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Cohesion in East Asia

Apr 07, 2020
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor, National Niigata University in Japan

In late March, leaders of the G20 agreed on a global response to the COVID-19 pandemic during a virtual summit. Afterward, the Chinese and American presidents spoke by phone. President Xi Jinping stressed the need for unity in the fight against the pandemic, while Donald Trump pledged to overcome interference and focus on cooperation.

Global solidarity and China-U.S. cooperation are undoubtedly critical in mankind’s response to this massive public health emergency. Broad global cooperation, as well good relations between countries, helps to foster understanding and policy coordination.

Responding to a Chinese proposal on March 20, the foreign ministers of China, Japan and the Republic of Korea held a special meeting in which they agreed to explore a joint epidemic prevention and control mechanism, convene a trilateral health ministers’ meeting as soon as possible and strengthen information-sharing and collaboration in the development of treatments and vaccines.

If the East Asia region is successful in these pursuits, the crisis may well be an opportunity to substantively advance regional integration. 

Catalyst for integration 

East Asian integration germinated during the 1997-98 financial crisis, which highlighted the ineffectiveness of traditional global multilateral financial mechanisms, such as the International Monetary Fund, to prevent and respond to the economic crisis and the resulting social upheaval in the region. An East Asian cooperation mechanism based on ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and the ROK) came into being in the course of the crisis response.

In the financial sector, although the Japanese proposal to create an Asian monetary fund did not materialize for a variety of reasons, the subsequent Chiang Mai Initiative and other regional arrangements gained a foothold and gradually improved. In 1999, China, Japan and the ROK, the three largest economies in East Asia, began to explore trilateral collaborative mechanisms. In the 2000s, significant progress was made in the development of regional FTA mechanisms, such as the ASEAN Economic Community, ASEAN-China FTA and ASEAN-Japan FTA.

On the basis of economic and trade integration East Asian countries have also developed various functional cooperative mechanisms and consultation frameworks. Most important, the East Asia Summit, a gathering of heads of state, has become an annual event and plays an important role in political guidance and leadership in regional cooperation.

A half-century ago, countries in the region did not really understand one another. Their level of interdependence was low as a result of protracted colonial rule and Cold War confrontations. Yet the situation has been changing since they seized the opportunity to deepen regional integration during the coronavirus crisis. Although problems of one kind or another remain, East Asian countries have gradually come to realize that they have shared interests and linked fates. This is an increasingly extensive and deeply held perception. 

Sense of community 

As a specialized international organization in the UN system, the World Health Organization plays a leading role in global public health governance. The organization has 194 members and operates regional and country offices around the world, yet it is still significantly constrained when it comes to dealing with public health events. The WHO focuses on global public health issues and its coverage is so wide that it’s difficult to keep track of everything that’s going on, and what should be supplemented with regional public health governance mechanisms.

The three countries of Northeast Asia have done a good job in controlling the spread of COVID-19 and accumulated valuable experience with fairly low mortality and high cure rates. This indicates a commendable level of expertise in medicine and health. In addition to cooperation in responding to the pandemic, including drug development, the three countries may also join hands in developing an early warning mechanism for health. So far, cooperation has been mainly pulled forward by ASEAN. From now on, however, the joint China-Japan-ROK effort toward a regional public health governance system will serve as a new driving force for regional integration.

East Asia is a region of great diversity. Countries differ in their social systems, populations and level of economic development, which means there will not be a one-size-fits-all collaboration on public health. An inclusive agenda is needed.

Since the pandemic outbreak, Japan, the ROK and, especially, China have demonstrated a great ability and determination to mobilize and deploy medical assets. Many other East Asian neighbors lack similar capacity. Spread of the pandemic into countries with relatively weak economies or societies may be catastrophic. Therefore, regional cooperation on public health must be steered toward helping the most vulnerable states — as soon as possible — to develop their own response capacity.

Regional assistance mechanisms need to be built. During an outbreak, senior citizens with underlying health problems are prone to become severely ill and are the most vulnerable population in all countries. They must be cared for in the same way, which will help them identify with the regional community.

East Asia’s underlying regional cohesion has always emerged in times of crisis. ASEAN was born during the Vietnam War to avoid similar tragedies. Its enlargement took place in the course of resolving the Cambodian crisis. The ASEAN+3 framework has grown in response to the East Asian economic crisis.

Similarly, the current pandemic provides an important window of opportunity for East Asia to develop a sense of a regional community. It is gratifying to see that governments, media and ordinary people in East Asia have been assisting each other and that there is no stigmatization or scapegoating by any government — in sharp contrast to some nationalistic moves elsewhere. This is a great example of a positive social and public opinion environment in which the pandemic can be fought.

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