The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a pandemic. In Southeast Asia, most countries have reported cases within their borders, but the infectiousness of the coronavirus and the interconnectedness of the Southeast Asia region means that unaffected ASEAN countries could soon see COVID-19 cases. Any ASEAN country could also experience sudden spikes in case numbers as seen in numerous countries around the world.
While the task of mitigating the outbreak has fallen largely on the health authorities of the Southeast Asian countries, the defense establishments of ASEAN states are now grappling with the reality that they also have a part to play in controlling the COVID-19 outbreak within their respective countries, especially if the disease escalates and overwhelms healthcare services.
On February 19, Vietnam — the ASEAN chair for 2020 — hosted the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Retreat. The seriousness of the pandemic was well recognized by Vietnam, which accordingly set the retreat’s agenda to focus on cooperation in dealing with the major health threat. As a result, the retreat saw the adoption of the Joint Statement by the ASEAN Defense Ministers on Defense Cooperation Against Disease Outbreaks, in which ASEAN defense chiefs pledged to work together to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic.
An Urgent Crisis and an Opportunity
Military assets have proven to be useful in combating COVID-19. For example, in China, the People’s Liberation Army deployed medical personnel to Wuhan, the city where the COVID-19 outbreak began. Militaries not only have medical personnel and equipment available, but also their capacities in chemical, biological and radiological defense mean they can support the healthcare sector in countering infectious diseases like COVID-19.
Of course, military assets should also always work in concert with the appropriate healthcare authorities. It is when a pandemic reaches uncontrollable levels where healthcare services are overwhelmed that the military could step in and take on the provision of medical services as a last resort.
The urgency presented by the pandemic means that the militaries of ASEAN countries should stand prepared to deal with any escalation of the pandemic within their borders, or to work closely with other ASEAN countries to develop a regional response. Moving forward, this can lay the groundwork for future ASEAN defense cooperation on pandemic control.
Nonetheless, there are potential roadblocks. The longstanding issue of sovereignty, the contentiousness over deployment of foreign troops on one’s territory, or even close coordination with foreign militaries, which may entail sharing of potentially sensitive information, will likely remain issues that ASEAN will continue to grapple with.
Utilizing Existing ASEAN Mechanisms
The ADMM could use mechanisms currently in place to deal with pandemics, even if their original purpose was more for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). The militaries of ASEAN have medical capabilities to assist public health authorities in times of a pandemic, especially when health capacities begin to show signs of strain amid sharp rises in confirmed cases.
The February 2020 joint statement stressed the need for cooperation among defense establishments to tackle the outbreak. The ASEAN Center for Military Medicine (ACMM) is an obvious mechanism to start with. One major action pledged in the joint statement was to promote practical cooperation among ASEAN defense establishments to “organize information and best practice sharing activities…including considering [conducting] a tabletop exercise within the framework of the [ACMM]…”
This marks a change in ACMM’s main area of focus, as the center was set up chiefly to address the provision of military medicine during natural disasters. It is a crucial step for ASEAN defense establishments to ramp up cooperation on pandemic control across the region. Once the pandemic has passed, ACMM could also serve as a training center to simulate future pandemics and train ASEAN militaries in their pandemic response capacities, similar to what it already does with HADR training.
Another possible mechanism is the ASEAN Militaries Ready Group (AMRG) on HADR — a joint military group comprising ASEAN specialists that would be deployed to address emergencies, mainly natural disasters. Nonetheless, there are potential issues with this. Concerns over sovereignty continue to abound in Southeast Asia, and ASEAN countries, even when faced with a crisis, may reject foreign assistance, especially military-related assistance. For many ASEAN countries, such action may be a bridge too far, even if the forces comprise only those from ASEAN countries, and fly the ASEAN flag.
As such, deployment of forces under the AMRG should always adhere to the ready group’s main principles, the most salient of which stipulate that it should be the affected country requesting such assistance, and that deployed forces must respect the host country’s laws. The understanding, moreover, should be that such military deployment should only take place when the healthcare services and defense forces of the host country are unable to cope with the pandemic, and the deployment of civilian healthcare aid from other countries is also deemed not possible.
Defense Cooperation in an Uncertain Geopolitical Landscape
Given the current uncertain geopolitical landscape, in particular how the U.S.-China rivalry will evolve from the impacts of COVID-19 on both countries, ASEAN countries must gather the political will to continue defense cooperation in multiple fields, including pandemic control. This will help ASEAN build a more cohesive and responsive community, as the theme for Vietnam’s chairmanship entails, and it would also help ASEAN maintain its much-vaunted centrality as ASEAN demonstrates its ability to lead regional defense cooperation on pandemic control. It is therefore imperative that ASEAN defense establishments begin cooperation and coordination efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the region, and the joint statement is a step in the right direction.
International cooperation on pandemic control has emerged as a low-hanging fruit, one that ASEAN countries and dialogue partners can agree is the most urgent at this moment. Moving forward, ASEAN defense establishments could obtain the lessons learned from the pandemic and forge ways forward for defense cooperation over controlling future outbreaks. Of course, ASEAN countries will have to reckon with how such cooperation can proceed while national sovereignty remains sacrosanct, but initial efforts can prepare ASEAN for a more robust regional response should the next pandemic strike.
Henrick Z. Tsjeng is Associate Research Fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Programme, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.