New challenges for Asean
This year marks the midpoint of the 10-year journey toward the realisation of the Asean Community Vision 2025. The journey began with the formal establishment of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, and envisions deeper regional integration in terms of political and security dimensions over the next five years.
Leaders and policy makers in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year have been assessing the progress made toward political cohesiveness, economic integration and social responsibility as an outward-oriented region within a global community.
But the Covid-19 pandemic is making their job harder, as its devastating global impact is creating even more unfavourable conditions for multilateralism than the ones that were already giving rise to inward-looking, nationalist and populist regimes in many countries.
The pandemic has exposed the unpreparedness and ineffectiveness of multilateral institutions and mechanisms. The result has been a lot of unilateral responses when collective, multilateral actions are needed.
Also affected is the ability of Asean and similar bodies to conduct business as usual. International and regional travel restrictions, social distancing and the imperatives of fighting the pandemic have made physical meetings impossible. Casualties so far have included the Asean-US Las Vegas Summit in March and this year's first Asean Summit in April, with more cancellations likely.
For now, the priority in Asean must be laying the groundwork for stronger healthcare systems in a region where economic and social disparities are wide. While Singapore has 2.3 doctors per thousand people, well above the global average of 1.5, the figure is less than one per 1,000 in Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, according to the World Bank.
And while Asean has a Mutual Recognition Arrangement for medical practitioners that is meant to standardise qualifications across countries, it does not work in practice because of certification and language barriers. In light of the current pandemic, common health standards will need to be ensured before member states can think about reopening borders and resuming integration efforts.
Meanwhile, Vietnam's chairmanship of Asean in 2020 has been seriously affected. The pandemic and other non-traditional security threats have come to the fore instead of the traditional geopolitical and economic challenges facing member states.
But thanks to Asean's ability to adjust its schedules, regional leaders and their teams have quickly adapted to the situation with online meetings, most of them with a priority to fight the pandemic. Such cooperation benefits not only the public health sector, but also Asean's community-building action plans in new contexts that have been influenced by the outbreak.
While the pandemic has revealed some fault lines in Asean integration and cooperation, the bloc must cope with the impact of intensified Sino-US friction and competing modes of alignment. As it turns out, the outbreak has created even greater opportunities for China to exert its presence and influence in Asean beyond its years-long campaign to take over the South China Sea.
"If the souring US-China relationship persists or worsens, Southeast Asia will have to play a more active, constructive role in preserving the region's peace, security and stability," wrote Elina Noor, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia, in a recent article titled "A New Abnormal".
"If Asean is to live up to its aspirations of unity and centrality, member states must demonstrate leadership through decisive action on difficult issues. In some instances, this may even mean having to utilise the consensus-based mechanism differently from the past and invoking international legal mechanisms when negotiations falter."
In other words, Ms Noor argues, Asean must go beyond rhetoric and act with responsiveness and cohesiveness.
And while it may be more difficult for Asean to move beyond virtual diplomacy for the remainder of 2020, any agreements reached at meetings -- virtual or physical -- must be translated into real implementation. That could be more challenging in the context of the pandemic and its aftermath.
Certainly, it will be difficult to promote regional initiatives at a time when rebuilding shattered national economies will be the priority for members including Thailand.
There have also been clear indications that the world including Asean will face permanent disruptions and new adjustments as we transition into the post-lockdown, post-pandemic era. But this presents an opportunity for the policymakers of our region to re-evaluate and strengthen systems and institutions to be more resilient and better prepared for the future.
Acting Asia Focus Editor
Acting Asia Focus Editor