Asean cooperation is vital for Covid-19 survival

by SHAHEERA AZNAM SHAH/ pic by BLOOMBERG

STRONGER cooperation between Asean countries would benefit each bloc member in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly in the procurement of the coronavirus vaccines.

EMIR Research Sdn Bhd head of social, law and human rights Jason Loh said it is crucial to secure the vaccines — currently the only life-sustaining response to the coronavirus — at affordable rates to ensure that they are accessible to the masses.

“The Asean community raised the procurement issue in a document titled “A Pathway to Recovery and Hope for ASEAN” under the rubric of “A New Age in the Asean Way” and it is very important to secure the vaccines as a bloc rather than individually because Asean has a population of 650 million,” said Loh during a China-Asean Business Association “Post Covid-19 in Asean: Supply Chain Disruption and Action to Mitigate the Impact and Revive the Economies” seminar in Kuala Lumpur recently.

He echoed Foreign Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein’s recommendation for Asean to prioritise the procurement of the vaccine as a bloc to increase its availability for the region.

Loh added that while Indonesia has made advancements in its research and development (R&D) for the vaccine, Malaysia could look into the production and manufacturing aspects.

“Manufacturing would fit nicely with Malaysia’s capability as a manufacturing hub, while Indonesia could remain as the R&D hub and other countries like Singapore and Thailand could be the centre for distribution, for example.

“Asean members must integrate the downstream, midstream and upstream portions of the vaccine development so that each country member could take a portion of the supply chain,” he said.

There is already a fundamental platform for Asean members, such as the Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA), to begin operating as a single market as opposed to individually.

AFTA is a trade bloc agreement that focuses on supporting local trade and manufacturing in all Asean countries, as well as facilitating economic integration with regional and international allies.

South-East Asian nations must continue to enhance intra-regional cooperation using existing mechanisms such as AFTA to move towards a single Asean market as envisioned by the Asean economic community, which was supposed to be realised in 2015.

“The goal is to make each member country’s supply chain more resilient because we are not depending on countries beyond the reach of Asean,” Loh said.

Asean’s centrality has been largely demonstrated in agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which solely focuses on the ease of trade flow within the region.

The association is not comparable to the European Union is involved, Loh said.

Instead, Asean member countries are very keen to cooperate and coordinate with others on trade, cultural exchanges and promoting the freedom of movement of people, capital, services and goods.

“It is the fundamental premise for an economic union and there is a need for stronger cooperation.

“We already have AFTA and we have the instrument to implement it principally in the form of Asean Trade in Goods Agreement, which is an updated version of the Common Effective Preferential Tariff,” he noted.