Covid-19: SE Asia is in shambles, but where is the AEC?


THE novel coronavirus has taken a devastating toll on its victims in South-East Asia. As of April 26, 2020, there were over 36,000 Covid-19 cases in the region, including 1,330 deaths.

These numbers are so alarming that each of the South-East Asian nations is imposing a Movement Control Order (MCO) for a few weeks to contain the spread of the virus.

While the MCO may inhibit the Covid-19 outbreak, the order also creates a damaging dent in the Asean economy.

At the same time, each country is financially desperate to provide sufficient medical funds to overcome the Covid-19 problem, as well as to salvage the economy. Essentially, the Covid-19 pandemic is badly affecting the Asean region in many ways, and the impacts are expected to persist for a long time, raising the need for an immediate contingency plan.

However, the Asean community seems to be absent when Asean nations are facing the Covid-19 crisis. Where is the Asean Economic Community (AEC)?

What measures are taken to endure the economic impacts of Covid-19 in the region? In other words, the lack of the AEC response in handling the Covid-19 crisis shows how incompetent and irrelevant the AEC is.

Firstly, the AEC has too much rhetoric involved. Some would even say the rhetoric of the AEC is mostly for show and too good to be true. Prof Joern Dosch, an expert on Asean-related issues from Monash University Sunway Campus, had explained that the AEC does not have the real level of implementation as highly claimed. This has been a problem even before the Covid-19 outbreak.

Despite the AEC Blueprint 2025, which was announced in 2015, the AEC has yet to provide a detailed plan of action to achieve the blueprint’s goals. The blueprint’s inability to forecast future economic conditions, mostly due to uncertain global economic situation, should also be noted.

As a result, the AEC is not prepared at all to encounter the sudden critical Covid-19 pandemic in South-East Asia.

The only response action the Asean leaders had executed collectively was the Asean Economic Ministers retreat in Da Nang, Vietnam, on March 10, 2020.

As expected, the retreat did not produce any detailed game plan to tackle the Covid-19 problems and impacts. Instead, there was only a joint statement by the Asean Economic Ministers expressing concerns over the Covid-19 outbreak and emphasising the importance of Asean solidarity in facing this challenge.

More than a month has passed since the retreat, but there is still no apparent measure taken by the AEC. Secondly, the AEC does not have a contingency plan for any type of emergency or disaster in South-East Asia.

The absence of contingency plans can be explained by the AEC’s inability to predict global economic situations in the future. However, the region’s experience with Influenza A, H1N1 and SARS in the past should have at least driven the AEC to come up with a contingency kit in case more health crises were to emerge again in the future.

Not only did the AEC fail to anticipate a coronavirus outbreak in the region, the AEC also failed to prepare the South-East Asian countries with a standardised prevention and control strategy.

If there were a contingency plan, what the AEC should have done initially is a coordinated effort to facilitate sending back foreign citizens to their home countries or providing accommodations for those who choose to stay.

Instead, each Asean country is taking a different approach to dealing with foreign nationals, causing uncertainties and danger among the foreign citizens.

Moreover, this issue also highlights the incompetency of the AEC to implement liberalisation in the movement of labour, which is supposed to be one of the objectives in the 2015 blueprint.

Another example of crucial action the AEC should have done to soften the impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak is ensuring food security in each member state.

As countries in Asean are imposing MCO and border closures, some countries such as Singapore will have a hard time maintaining the food supply.

Asean countries that rely on each other for certain food products like rice and coconuts will also face the same fate. For this reason, the AEC should have devised a contingency plan for this dire situation.

For example, the AEC should have worked on trade facilitation, so that food supply trade between Asean nations runs smoothly during this desperate time.

Thirdly, related to the previous point, there is a lack of coordination within Asean. A coordination between Asean nations and communities should have been a major step in Asean contingency plans for situations like the Covid-19 outbreak.

During this perilous time, it is particularly important to have a coordinated effort by Asean communities to improve the resilience of Asean’s politics, economy and security.

This is consistent with the AEC’s proposed characteristics, which are a highly integrated and cohesive community, and a resilient, inclusive and people-oriented Asean.

However, there is no coordination between Asean nations, let alone the Asean communities. The reason for the lack of coordination is because of Asean’s weak institutionalisation.

Instead, each Asean member state is taking different approaches to curb the spread of the virus, including introducing various economic stimulus packages and MCOs.

What Asean as a community failed to realise is that separate governments’ actions may have serious impacts on other Asean nations. The consequences can be seen in the foreign citizen situation and the food supply security.

The only move towards a coordination was a recent call by Indonesia for a special summit to strengthen cooperation against the deadly virus.

While this is a good step for Asean, there should also be a call for coordination between Asean communities, especially between AEC and Asean Political-Security Community.

The Covid-19 outbreak is no longer a health issue, but it should be treated as a serious security issue. During this critical time, Asean members must put aside their political and cultural differences, and push for a stronger integration and shared responsibility in order to ensure the security of South-East Asia against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Asean community should revisit the idea of regionalisation. In the period of reversed globalisation like this, it is imperative that Asean members move forward as a region.

The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.