The Debate

COVID-19 and a New Direction for Asian Integration

The crisis should prompt a change in thinking.

By Mie Oba for
COVID-19 and a New Direction for Asian Integration
Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

Over the last 30 years of advancing globalization, the international community has for the most part looked favorably on the movement of people, goods, capital and information across national borders, and on the unfettered development of economic and social activities. It has encouraged the creation of systems and environments that facilitate these cross-border activities. As part of these ongoing efforts, regional integration has been promoted in several areas through economic partnership agreements and free trade agreements.

In Asia, several regional integration initiatives are underway. With these initiatives gathering momentum within ASEAN, the ASEAN Economic Community was established in 2015. ASEAN also concluded free trade agreements with six countries outside the bloc in the early 2000s. Based on these agreements, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations were launched, led by ASEAN, with the aim of regionally integrating East Asia. Meanwhile, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations were underway for the economic integration of the Asia-Pacific region at large. In 2019, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership was enacted by 11 countries, although the withdrawal of the United States from the TPP in 2017 was an unexpected interruption.

These regional economic integration initiatives in Asia were supported by the creation of common rules that accelerated economic and social activities across national borders and the creation of systems based on those rules. The underlying thinking has been that globalization through the integration of human spheres of action based on common rules will lead to regional and global prosperity and stability.

However, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has upended the international order, which, since the end of the Cold War, has been largely rooted in the progress of globalization. Symbolic of the new reality have been the decisions by Europe, the United States and other nations in Asia and Africa to restrict the movement of people across borders, as nations across the planet try to suppress these initial outbreaks. China has prohibited the entry of foreign citizens, even those holding valid visas and residence permits. India temporarily suspended all issued visas, regardless of nationality, with certain exceptions such as diplomatic visas. The Philippines and Vietnam stopped issuing visas, while Thailand and Malaysia have barred foreign visitors. ASEAN countries that until recently were promoting ASEAN integration and leading initiatives for broader regional integration have rapidly closed their borders.

The United States, which, without the coronavirus pandemic, would normally be a supporter of globalization and freedom of movement, is now prohibiting foreigners who have visited China, Iran, the Schengen Agreement countries, Britain and Ireland in the past 14 days from entering the country, with the exception of permanent residents. The U.S.-Canadian border is temporarily closed. Meanwhile, Japan is stepping up its own control over cross-border movements, and has called on Japanese to avoid non-essential travel to the United States. Many countries in Europe that have supported regional integration have put in place measures to restrict or prohibit the inbound movement of people from third countries, and are imposing tighter controls over their borders.

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These border closures are precisely the opposite to what is envisioned in the pro-globalization mindset. Coupled with the nationalist and inward-looking policies already seen in China and certain ASEAN countries, the decisions prompted by the pandemic could have a serious impact on regional integration in Asia.

Yet even if the pandemic had never happened, it was time to rethink the blinkered approach to regional integration, which merely sought to accelerate cross-border activity in Asia while ignoring their negative implications.

Globalization has produced its share of negative consequences, including but not limited to the spread of disease such as COVID-19, a rise in cross-border crime, a surge in illegal immigration, and wanton environmental destruction. In addition, countries, regions, industries and people in certain social strata have not prospered under globalization, unable to compete on price or take part in global value chains. Little attention has been paid to these side effects of globalization and regional integration.

The international community must deal with the challenge of achieving a fairer and more balanced globalization and regional integration by addressing inequalities and responding to the risks associated with the liberalization of national borders. It must also recognize the need to provide public goods, such as safety, environmental preservation, and public hygiene. These are challenges that should have been confronted long before the novel coronavirus outbreak.

With many countries closing their borders and turning inward, it is clear now that national sovereignty and citizenship cannot be erased, even if these concepts were once seen as devalued. It is equally clear that sovereign nations have the ultimate authority and power to determine the environment in which people live, including such aspects as legislation, law enforcement and political systems. Nevertheless, addressing inequalities and providing for the public good are no longer possible on a country-by-country basis. Rather, we must reevaluate, and recognize that stronger international cooperation and commitment are still needed.

It is time to rethink the conventional approach to regional integration, with its overemphasis on intensifying cross-border activity. This current crisis should be seen as an opportunity for a change in thinking, to an approach that addresses inequalities and seeks to provide public goods for the future.

Mie Oba is a professor at the Faculty of Law, Kanagawa University.