ASEAN +3 Virtual Summit: A Hope Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic, Where is it leading towards to?

By: T. Noto Suoneto

By the time I am writing this, more than 2 million people worldwide have been infected by the new coronavirus. Hopefully, the situation is getting better in the foreseeable future. This time, I want to discuss the ASEAN +3 (Japan, Korea, and China) Virtual Summit who has just happened recently. The Summit was hosted by Vietnam as the Chairman of ASEAN this year in 2020. The ten Southeast Asian leaders were gathered with three strategic partners of ASEAN to discuss the most-pressing COVID-19 pandemic situation, they planned to plot a strategy to handle the health, economic, social and political impacts on the region.

At the time when this world is desperately needing a global leadership and cooperation in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, this ASEAN+3 summit is definitely giving a fresh air (hope).

As we know, the global economic growth dropped down and the global supply chain disrupted significantly. The IMF has also just announced that Asia’s economic growth likely to drop to zero in 2020. World Bank has also expected significant GDP growth losses under the global pandemic scenario not an exception to some Southeast Asian countries like Thailand (-5%), Malaysia (-4.6%) and Indonesia (-3.5%) at the lower case.

Some ASEAN member countries are very much dependent on the tourism sector like Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia and the pandemic has ruined (perhaps) the most valuable source of income to those nations and in fact, it has destroyed its economy especially to the small businesses. Those projections are demanding the Southeast Asian leaders to be more cooperative in handling the impact of COVID-19 pandemic.

Back to the ASEAN +3 Virtual Summit, as you might already know, all of ASEAN’s member states have been hit by the COVID-19 infections, with the total number of confirmed cases reaching approximately 25.000, including over 1000 deaths. This number is gradually rising despite some countries have imposed massive lockdowns, travel restrictions, and home quarantines.

Within the ASEAN region, the successful rate in curbing the spread of coronavirus are varied, Vietnam and Singapore claimed to be the most capable ASEAN countries in handling the pandemic. Meanwhile, in Indonesia and the Philippines, the data has shown the massive increase of infections daily. Both governments have imposed lockdowns or partial lockdown policies but the data hasn’t figured out positively. Many even criticized the low number of COVID-19 testing in those two countries.

The summit reaffirmed the shared commitment of ASEAN Plus Three countries to strengthen solidarity, enhance cooperation and mutual support to control and contain the spread of the pandemic, addressing the adverse impact of the pandemic on societies and economies. Some points agreed during the summit and I’d like to point out some key takeaways from it.

Economy remains a “king” for ASEAN

If we carefully read the joint statement of the ASEAN +3 leaders released after the summit, almost half of the main clauses are covering the economic aspect of COVID-19. Although the priority of working steps among these nations is solving the health crisis first, the economic ones seen as the most significant aspect that needs the full contribution of all members plus external partners.

I recently watched the point of intervention by the new Prime Minister of Malaysia, PM Muhyiddin Yassin, and his first suggestion is the necessity to form an ASEAN Economic Recovery Plan, by also inviting all economic ministers to discuss the plan. The Prime Minister of Singapore, PM Lee Hsien Loong in his first point of intervention lastly also stated to ASEAN +3 leaders to work together in mitigating the economic damage, maintaining the level of economic and trade activities, with aimed to have the economic condition recovered quickly when the pandemic subsides. Prime Minister also mentioned that recently, Singapore just had a joint ministerial statement with some other countries, forming out the commitment to have trade ties and lines remained open during the pandemic.

It is undeniably important to maintain the sustainable supplies of essential goods such as food, commodities, and medicines to stabilize the domestic situation. As many officials and experts said on many occasions, the lack of food supplies can lead to other undesired problems which are social and political instability. Therefore, the ASEAN +3 leaders have committed to keep markets open for trade and investment and strengthen the resiliency and sustainability of regional supply chains. To support the trade and investment activities, they also have agreed to encourage the possibility of people movement for essential groups like businesses.

As the post-COVID 19 pandemic measures, the ASEAN +3 leaders have also reaffirmed their commitments to strengthen joint efforts toward post-pandemic recovery, stimulate economic development and financial resilience, restore growth, connectivity, and tourism, maintain market stability, and prevent potential risks of economic recession. One interesting point made by the Singaporean Prime Minister, who encouraged all ASEAN +3 leaders to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) this year, to boost the trade and investment growth, although eventually this suggestion is not stated in the final statement.

As all governments around the world have pledged hundreds of billions of dollars to battle this health crisis, the alternative (or additional) funding to cover the expenses of handling the COVID-19 pandemic is extremely needed. The ASEAN+3 countries during the summit have planned to rescue some funds called “ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund”.

Endeavor to ensure adequate financing to contain the pandemic and protect our peoples, including through the proposed establishment of the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund for public health emergencies which would be reallocated from existing ASEAN+1 and APT cooperation funds, with possible additional support from ASEAN’s external partners.

After having a lot of criticism of the slow response and weak regional cooperation of ASEAN in handling the pandemic, and also many experts stated that the funds are not significant enough to cover the damage of pandemic, yet in my opinion, this fund has shown us the concrete initiative to support one another. Even though, the funds are practically coming from strategic partners like China, Japan, and South Korea by reallocating the existing cooperation funds. It then led me to another discussion, on how is the geopolitical contest in ASEAN among external powers.

The geopolitical contest amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

In my recent interview with Prof. Kishore Mahbubani, a world top foreign policy expert, I addressed a question on the contest of global leadership in fighting against the coronavirus pandemic. Beijing has shown up to the world for being active as the leading actor in helping other countries to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. President Xi Jinping’s move to give aid to Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia have shown the generosity of China to ASEAN countries. Meanwhile, the U.S. has also been offering quite significant assistance to the region.

As the leader in the global health and humanitarian response to COVID-19, the United States has acted swiftly to support our ASEAN partners in combating the COVID-19 virus. Since the outbreak began, the U.S. Government has provided approximately $18.3 million in emergency health and humanitarian assistance to ASEAN Member States.

So, what does it reveal about the geopolitical dynamics of Southeast Asia?

Prof. Mahbubani mentioned that ASEAN will have a very difficult time if the US-China geopolitical contest worsens. And the biggest danger that ASEAN faces is that ASEAN could be broken up as a result of the US-China geopolitical contest. Within the ASEAN family, some countries are relatively pro-China, like Cambodia and Laos and some countries that are relatively pro-America like Vietnam. With the whole range of countries in ASEAN, ASEAN countries need to stay united together during this difficult period.

We also can see the spat going on between the US and China over the COVID-19 issues and how it escalates now by the announcement of President Trump who has just halted the US funding the World Health Organization (WHO). As far as I see, only China who is bravely made a statement of disappointment over this decision (meanwhile no statement from ASEAN leaders).

“But we should not see this as a zero-sum game. We should not choose. We should not be forced to choose between China and the United States. We should have good relations with both China and the United States.” — Prof. Mahbubani

By these funds, it shows the advantages of working together with as many as partners we can, and it has even provided better alternatives for ASEAN to grow (Japan and South Korea involved). This step will be eventually giving a way to fulfill all interests of ASEAN member states and external partners. Two examples are South Korean President Moon Jae In can be fully pushing the “New Southern Policy” implementation after the pandemic ended and China with its Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) projects.

This health crisis I believe will decide the future relationship between ASEAN and all external partners, I fully convinced that the ones who are working hand-in-hand with ASEAN in mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic will eventually explore more softer ways in solving the previous and existing problems (for example South China Sea Disputes, Natuna Sea for Indonesia). This situation will also prove all good words and promises by ASEAN partners’ leaders previously saying they are the best friend/brother of ASEAN (or one of the member states).

Furthermore, the summit will not be happened without the initiative of Vietnam as the Chairman this year, for the early beginning of this pandemic in February, Vietnam has shown up its presence to invite other ASEAN member countries to respond quickly toward the outbreak. It then followed by a series of ministerial meetings and consultations with many relevant actors like China (the first infected country), the US and the WHO. In my opinion, even though the initial plan of Vietnam this year has been disrupted, and even almost all major plans have been canceled or postponed, Vietnam as the chair has successfully brought up the importance of ASEAN as a regional entity despite some past weaknesses and failures.

How about Indonesia?

Without the ASEAN table, I think Indonesia alone is difficult to show its diplomatic gestures or movement in coordinating the COVID-19 mitigation measures with other ASEAN member states. Ranked at the 2nd place as the most affected country among Southeast Asian nations with more than 5.000 people infected and relatively high mortality rate (approximately 9%), Indonesia has a weak position to stand as the leading nation in fighting against the pandemic (within ASEAN).

Again, it has then told us that foreign policy is not only influenced or dictated (in some cases) by domestic politics, but also domestic capacities. To be regionally influential, we really need to take into account all set of power we have, including a power to cope with a crisis.

Let’s compare to Vietnam who has recently ramped up medical equipment production and made related donations to countries in COVID-19 need, including to the United States, Russia, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Many experts even argued Vietnam has shown itself as the leader and the winner in Southeast Asia in fighting the pandemic. That’s true what has been said by the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, it is too early to claim victory over the pandemic, yet I agree with the current assessment of Vietnam’s “coronavirus diplomacy”.

Finally, the government of Southeast Asian countries have been challenged to give an optimal and exceptional economic policy response to the situation. Hopefully, the commitment of ASEAN +3 countries in handling the impacts of the pandemic will be giving a significant impact to each and every one of us.

This article was retrieved from @notosuoneto. Follow Noto for another interesting insight.

Noto Suoneto