Using regional mechanisms . . .
As Australia and New Zealand discuss the creation of a “trans-Tasman travel bubble” between them, a similar idea has gained steam among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members. Singapore has urged the members to establish a set of checklists and guidelines for cross-border movement once the pandemic is fully controlled in the region. Since January, the ASEAN members have collectively responded to the pandemic using existing regional health cooperation mechanisms and exchanging dialogue with key partners, namely, China, Japan, and South Korea. In the Special ASEAN Summit on COVID-19 held virtually on April 14, members agreed to set up a COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund to support preventive efforts within the region.
But falling short of expectations . . .
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed ASEAN’s fragility as a regional inter-governmental institution, even while it is being lauded as a model for other regional blocs in the developing world. Its collective response has been slow and scattered. Although the Ministers of Health and Ministers of Defence met prior to April, the ASEAN Summit on COVID-19 didn’t take place until mid-April. The lack of coordination and the unevenness of the members’ healthcare systems have been visible in their varying responses. When the region was faced with the problem of food security, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, all major rice-growing countries, resorted to export controls on the supplies of this staple food. An emergency meeting on the matter was called, but ASEAN members failed to reach an agreement.
Challenges ahead . . .
The economic and political fallout of the crisis may further jeopardize 'ASEAN centrality' and relevance in a post-pandemic world. The regional bloc is expected to face immense pressure to restore confidence in its institutional vitality. ASEAN needs to conduct a thorough evaluation of its collective response and how to transform its existing regional mechanisms to better respond to future crises. The bloc should draw from lessons learned from this pandemic and focus on how to mutually strengthen food security and health security within the region. In addition, ASEAN members will be looking to start discussions on how to resume trade with it key and strategic partners, including Canada, which has increasingly enhanced its economic engagement with the region.
- Center for Strategic and International Studies: Southeast Asia COVID-19 Tracker
- The Diplomat: ASEAN leaders hold virtual summit amid COVID-19 pandemic
- Nikkei Asian Review: Coronavirus exposes ASEAN divisions on rice security