The Jakarta Post
The absence of a concerted ASEAN response to the coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on member states’ commitment to regional integration and unity. And now Indonesia, one of the grouping's five founding states, is calling for a special summit on a regional COVID-19 strategy.
The ASEAN Community concept was introduced in 2015 to develop a regional community that was “politically cohesive, economically integrated, and socially responsible”. Observers say, however, that ASEAN states have failed at anticipating a regional pandemic, never mind a regional prevention and control strategy as part of the vision for an integrated ASEAN.
Southeast Asian nations are beginning to see the all-encompassing challenges that come with their own localized outbreaks while the number of confirmed cases grows across the region.
Yet, each member state is using a different approach to curbing the spread of the virus, whether in the form of quarantines, lockdowns, border closures or travel bans, while each have introduced various economic stimulus packages to buffer the impacts of COVID-19.
Senior officials from the 10 member states with expertise in health, politics, economics and sociocultural affairs met on Tuesday by video link under the framework of the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group (ACCWG) on Public Health Emergencies.
Indonesia told the meeting that it was time for ASEAN to hold a virtual summit as well as an ASEAN Plus Three Summit in order to strengthen cooperation against the deadly virus, which has infected more than 10,000 people across the region.
“Indonesia believes that a special summit will send a positive signal to the public, businesses and investors,” the Indonesian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has also informally proposed convening a special meeting to address the global health crisis to Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh, according to ministry official Achmad Rizal Purnama.
Member states are also in the process of setting up the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund. The fund is to be drawn from the ASEAN cooperation fund with partner countries including the United States, which has pledged around US$18.3 million in emergency health and humanitarian assistance, according to the US State Department.
Indonesia said that the special summit would be useful in sharing knowledge and experience from the bloc’s "plus three" partners – Japan, South Korea and China, all of which have succeeded in flattening the curve .
The Chinese city of Wuhan is where the disease first emerged about three months ago, while South Korea has been praised around the world for its strategy to control the outbreak through massive early testing programs.
Such initiatives are especially important following the mid-March announcement by current ASEAN chair Vietnam, that the ASEAN Summit scheduled for April 6-9 had been postponed to June due to concerns over the outbreak.
“The Foreign Minister continues to communicate with her counterparts in ASEAN that it is time for member states to address [COVID-19] issues through other means, such as a virtual [summit]," Achmad told a press briefing on Wednesday. "Indonesia has conveyed this [idea] to Vietnam, as the ASEAN chair, which is exploring this possibility.”
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Ibrahim Almuttaqi of the Habibie Center's ASEAN studies program said that the regional grouping appeared sluggish in developing a regional response to COVID-19 and had instead adopted what he described as a “nation-first” mentality.
“On the one hand, this is understandable given the desperate situation we are in. But they should be well-advised of the 'tragedy of the commons'. If we all act independently and think only about our own interests, we will hurt the greater good,” he said.
Senior fellow Randy Nandyatama at Gadjah Mada University’s ASEAN Studies Center described the situation as a “stag hunt", a game theory concept wherein countries have to choose between cooperation toward larger payoffs or individually seeking smaller outcomes.
“Hopefully ASEAN member states are all looking for the ‘stag’ [greater good], which can only happen if they share information among countries and are well aware that this crisis is likely to be long and thus requires leadership,” he said.
Randy pointed out that ASEAN had never responded collectively to any regional crises as they were occurring, but rather created a new mechanism once the crisis had passed. For example, the Chiang Mai Initiative, the bloc's legacy from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, was only formed after 2000, he said.
ASEAN states also tended to use a security paradigm when facing regional challenges, which generally resulted in a zero-sum mentality, said Randy.
“Singapore and Vietnam can share their best practices with fellow member states, but they have not appeared to consider this, [...] even though helping their neighbors will greatly help them in the long run – in this case, avoiding a second wave of COVID-19,” he said.