It took Laos, the coordinator of Asean-US relations, a full three days to work on the joint statement from the April 23 teleconference between the Asean foreign ministers and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before it could be released. The reason was simple: The Asean leaders did not want their platform or the joint statement to echo the strong anti-Chinese sentiments expressed by Mr Pompeo during the virtual meeting, which lasted more than two hours. It has long been the grouping's practice not to allow any dialogue partners to attack a third party via its platform.
During the teleconference, Mr Pompeo hit out hard at China on issues related to the South China Sea and the way China has handled Covid-19. The rest of the discussion focused on US relations with Asean on public health issues.
Well aware of Washington's strong position, Asean did not discuss President Donald Trump's knee-jerk decision to halt an estimated US$400 million (13 billion baht) in funding to the World Health Organization. Again, Asean was polite and showed it wants to proceed to work with the US on the coronavirus outbreak.
Since Covid-19 became a global pandemic, both China and the US have been playing the blame game, confronting each other on their methods for managing the spread and mitigation of the virus, an attitude that has led to confusion among their allies and friends.
At the regional level, Asean under Vietnam's chair has successfully tapped into both countries' greatest assets related to their scientific, medical and human resources without jeopardising longstanding relations.
Since the outbreak made global headlines in mid-January, the leaders of Asean and China have been able to frequently communicate on how they can work together when epidemics strike. Lest we forget, both Asean and China met and worked together during a special summit when the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak hit the region in 2003. Since then, both sides have been working on Sars control and prevention and the eradication of its multifarious effects.
Additionally, both Asean and China have close economic links and are major tourist destinations for each other, with an annual travel flow of over 65 million visits. Furthermore, China is the grouping's largest trading partner while Asean is China's second.
As such, the fraternal ties between Asean and China at the leader and working group level are much closer. In a time of crisis, both sides trust each other as they share similar outlooks governing general values within the Asian region. It can easily be seen that China has won admiration and praise due to the speed of Beijing's assistance to individual Asean members.
For instance, China was able to respond to the immediate needs of Asean members for medical supplies and equipment as well as supporting the Asean Response Fund on Covid-19 even before the term of reference of a Thai-proposed financial plan was being considered.
Indeed, no Asean leader has laid blame on China during the pandemic. The Asean and Chinese foreign ministers met for the first time on February 20 in Vientiane and came out with a fully fledged action plan to fight Covid-19. As it turned out, the Vientiane meeting would be the last face-to-face meeting between them. A series of regional summits was postponed due to the viral outbreak. The Asean-US special summit in Last Vegas, scheduled for March 14 was also suspended.
But close scrutiny of the approaches adopted by China and the US reveals many similarities and similar concerns. First of all, both countries give top priority to the real-time sharing of available epidemiological information, best practices, technical guidelines and solutions for epidemic prevention and control, diagnosis, treatment and surveillance.
Secondly, the two countries also agree on the need to promote effective public communication and counter fake news. Thirdly, special attention has been placed on strengthening national and regional capacity in responding to public health emergencies, epidemiological research and development, clinical treatment, research and development of vaccines and anti-viral medicines including promoting capacity and preparedness to respond to public health emergencies.
Fourthly, Washington and Beijing continue to rely on their existing bilateral cooperation with Asean through various Asean-led mechanisms, both collective and bilateral, on public health issues. For instance, in the case of the US, both the US Agency of International Development and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have played significant roles in the capacity building of Asean's health workers.
As far as China is concerned, several existing mechanisms with Asean are in place, such as the Asean-China Health Ministers' Meeting and the Asean-China Senior Officials' Meeting on Health Development. Since the coronavirus outbreak, both sides have worked together to fully implement the Asean-China memorandum of understanding on health cooperation and support other mutually agreed projects in order to enhance capacity.
Finally, China and the US have reaffirmed to Asean the need for a well-rounded series of policies to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on the economy through stimulus packages, fiscal and non-fiscal incentives as well as monetary and financial sector policies.
Furthermore, they agree to preserve the regional supply chain, in particular the flow of essential goods and services, and sharing of policies and measures designed to mitigate the socio-economic impacts of the outbreak.
In the final analysis, both in the short and medium terms, China can be more flexible and accommodate the needs of Asean members. But in the longer term, and through its cooperation in education areas through individual Asean members and existing funds that target economic integration, the US could be the winner.
Engagement with the US and China on Covid-19 allows Asean to learn how to efficiently manage these two important bilateral relations beyond trade and strategic matters. One thing is clear: With issues related to public health having gained significance and urgency in the current and post-pandemic era, there will be more institutionalised platforms within the Asean health sector with the grouping's dialogue partners.
As such, Asean health-related professionals and organisations need a new mindset that will encourage stronger regional endeavors and cooperation to better fight the unseen enemies of the future.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is veteran journalist on regional affairs.