As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, curtailment measures such as border closures and travel restrictions are put up across Southeast Asia and the world, presenting an unprecedented stress test for Vietnam’s ASEAN Chairmanship.
ASEAN’s traditional practice of regionalism – through more than 1,500 interface meetings in its yearly packed calendar – has effectively ground to a halt. Many of the expected deliverables of Vietnam’s Chairmanship are put on hold, including another reading of the draft code of conduct in the South China Sea (COC), the homestretch negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) mega trade deal, review of the ASEAN Charter, mid-term review of the Community Blueprints 2025, and groundwork for a post-2025 ASEAN vision.
While being preoccupied with containing the coronavirus in its own territory – to some considerable success thus far – Vietnam has also made efforts to raise the ASEAN flag. It issued the ASEAN Chair’s statement on the outbreak on February 14, highlighting the urgency of the problem and committing to ASEAN’s collective response. The statement listed measures which, if implemented, could complement ASEAN member states’ national responses to the epidemic. These include, among others, timely sharing of information on COVID-19 detection and treatment, standardized measures of health inspection at borders and entry points of the member states, and consular assistance to ASEAN nationals in needy situations.
Yet, both the lack of epidemiological data and the inadequate appreciation of the outbreak’s enormity in its early stages by some ASEAN member states, coupled with COVID-19’s fast spread across the globe, have left regional countries scrambling for disjointed containment measures lately. As such, implementation of the espoused ASEAN coherent response to the epidemic remains elusive on the ground.
ASEAN, however, has not been inactive in the face of this challenge. In fact, intra-ASEAN consultations have been stepped up in the past two weeks with Vietnam taking the lead. Hanoi has activated all virtual channels available to keep ASEAN discussions ongoing. Apart from regular briefings within the ASEAN health sector, a cross-sectoral ASEAN working group involving the senior officials on health, foreign affairs, information, defense, immigration, and transport, was established with a view to developing a regional holistic response to the pandemic and its widespread disruptions.
At its meeting on March 31, this interagency working group discussed some practical measures to ensure information exchange and policy coordination among the member states. These include strengthening ASEAN’s response capacity to public health emergencies, setting up regional medical stockpiles, and developing an ASEAN pandemic support fund. The ASEAN defense sector, with its accumulated experience in disaster response practical cooperation, has also stepped in. The ASEAN defense ministers on February 19 issued a joint statement on defense cooperation against disease outbreaks. At Vietnam’s initiative, the Bangkok-based ASEAN Center of Military Medicine is preparing for a table-top exercise, focusing on sharing of experiences and best practices of ASEAN militaries, especially on military quarantine camps and military field hospitals for COVID-19 patients.
Admittedly, the extent to which these ASEAN initiatives would immediately alleviate the pressures upon its members in the unfolding public health crisis is limited. Given the exigencies on the ground, self-help remains the order of the day as countries must put the well-beings of their nationals first while medical resources are in dire shortages. But what ASEAN is doing deserves encouragement, for it could get the region better prepared for future pandemics.
Taking the long view, ASEAN cooperation is also critical to enabling regional economic recovery from the multitude of COVID-19 disruptions, especially in mending supply chain breakdowns and adapting to supply chain relocations. As a very open economy itself, it would be in Vietnam’s interest to leverage ASEAN to revitalize the uninterrupted flows of goods, services and people for a strong post-pandemic rebound.
Vietnam is also pushing for the convening of a special summit among ASEAN leaders and with their Plus Three counterparts (China, Japan and South Korea) via video conference. ASEAN stands to gain from this closer engagement since the Plus Three countries have accumulated extensive epidemiological data and best practices in the virus containment. Furthermore, they have in their command a large base of medical resources, especially South Korea’s COVID-19 testing and China’s medical manufacturing capabilities.
Beyond the Plus Three mechanism, Vietnam has actively engaged in multi-directional diplomacy, both in its national capacity and as the ASEAN Chair, to keep external partners informed and supportive of its own and ASEAN efforts to fight the disease. To this effect, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has engaged in phone talks with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts. Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh likewise talked with his Japanese counterpart, and participated in an ASEAN-EU ministerial teleconference on March 20.
Vietnam has also joined three phone discussions at the deputy foreign minister level with the U.S., Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand – a configuration coined by some media outlets as the “Quad-Plus.” Throughout these engagements, the key message is to keep the spirit and habits of international cooperation alive and well, especially in information exchange on the pandemic, mutual assistance for each other’s nationals affected by movement restrictions, and mitigation of disruptions to the supply chains.
It is noteworthy that Vietnam, and ASEAN as a whole, has tried to stay above the fray of U.S.-China rivalry as well as Beijing and Washington’s competing narratives on COVID-19. It focused instead on the overriding imperative to secure both major powers’ cooperation to fight the disease. ASEAN foreign ministers met with their Chinese counterpart on February 20, committing to joint emergency responses to COVID-19. U.S.-ASEAN strengthened cooperation on the pandemic was also the take-away from an ASEAN-U.S. high-level interagency video conference on 31 March. Additionally, ASEAN-U.S. engagements at the foreign minister and health minister levels are being considered. As noted by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long, “it is most constructive for us now to look ahead and find the best way to move forward and deal with a problem which we now have.”
However, once the pandemic has subsided and economic recovery is back on top of every nation’s agenda, Vietnam’s efforts to maintain ASEAN’s internal unity and dynamic equilibrium amid great power contestations would become more difficult. As the United States is still reeling from the pandemic, bordering a deep economic recession, and soon being absorbed in its presidential election, and China is eager to gild its tarnished image with ongoing medical and forthcoming economic charm offensives, there would be less room for ASEAN to tango between the two clashing giants.
Beyond geopolitics, as the chair, Vietnam is mandated by the ASEAN Charter to “ensure the effective and timely response to urgent issues or crisis situations affecting the region.” The essence of this mandate is well captured in Vietnam’s chairmanship theme on a “Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN.” This is the very moment to put those words into action.
For all its constraints, Vietnam is trying to lead by example, contributing medical supplies to Laos and Cambodia, as well as testing kits to Indonesia. Its strong agricultural base – especially in rice production – is also a boon to the region amid rising concerns over food security induced by COVID-19 disruptions. It is hoped that a strong sense of national pride and regional responsibility would motivate Vietnam to exercise further leadership and diplomacy, so that 2020 would not go down in history as a “lost year” for ASEAN and its chairmanship.
Ms. Hoang Thi Ha is Lead Researcher (Political & Security Affairs) at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute, Singapore.