The reputation of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) as little more than a talking shop has been further enhanced by its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is not surprising that ministers cannot agree on such issues as China and the South China Sea given their varying national interest priorities. But one would have expected a grouping which is mainly about economic and social cooperation rather than diplomatic confrontation to take practical, mutual help measures, for example relating to the supply of masks and test kits, avoiding damaging interruptions to cross-border trade or at least discussing sequencing of the reopening of borders between them.
This is not for lack of meetings and ministerial statements. As early as mid-February, defense and foreign ministers’ meetings in Vientiane pledged cooperation, including on medical supplies and research. Then on April 14, with Vietnam now in the ASEAN chair, a virtual summit meeting of heads of state and government issued a four-page statement which concluded the parties would:
· Act jointly and decisively to control the spread of the disease while mitigating its adverse impact on our people’s livelihood.
· The critical importance of a coherent, multi-sectoral, multi-stakeholder and whole-of-ASEAN Community approach,
· Intensify cooperation for adequate provision of medicines, medical supplies… protective equipment.
· Remain committed to keeping ASEAN markets open for trade and investment … ensuring food security such as the ASEAN plus Three (China, Korea Japan) Emergency Rice Reserve.
Then, on June 6, a meeting of economic ministers proposed a Plan of Action for cooperation and supply chain management and keep market for essential goods open. This would be endorsed by the ASEAN Economic Community Council. A Special Commission would also be appointed to devise a post-Covid recovery plan.
The reality is that there is scant evidence of follow-up to any of these practical suggestions. For sure, there has been no obvious backsliding into protectionism but in countries have been going their owns ways and there has been scant signs of exchange of medical supplies or even information within the region.
Border controls have been very rigorous as though some countries needed to worry about a few imported cases when they had so many of their own. There has been no apparent exchange of data on the specifics of cases which could help understand the wide differences seen in terms both of the extent of the disease and its impacts on specific age and income groups.
Although lockdowns have been declared everywhere there is scant data on their impact on agriculture which is necessarily driven by seasons not by the decrees of politicians and bureaucrats in the capital cities.
Meanwhile millions of ASEAN citizens are suffering from the border controls between ASEAN countries, Indonesian and Filipino workers in Singapore and Malaysia, Myanmar and Cambodian workers in Thailand, etc. Where is the mutual help for these people?
Of course, some cooperation may actually be taking place through ASEAN mechanisms which have not been widely, or at all, reported. However, the apparent failure to achieve anything against Covid-19 other than statements of intent emphasizes once again that ASEAN lacks mechanisms for practical action as well as relying on consensus to agree on a course of action. In the Covid case, there is no lack of consensus on the need, just no ways of bringing it about.
Critics have long claimed that the ASEAN Way’s “emphasis on consultation, consensus, and non-interference forces the organization to adopt only those policies which satisfy the lowest common denominator,” which is a valid criticism. Differences hinder efforts to find common solutions to particular issues, but also make it difficult to determine when collective action is appropriate. In this case, action should have been easy to figure out. That it wasn’t in this case speaks volumes about the association’s shortcomings.