Dr. Robin Ramcharan, lecturer at the Webster University of Thailand and Executive Director of the Bangkok-based Asia Centre. — VNA/VNS Photos
BANGKOK — The ASEAN+3 Special Summit on COVID-19 Response today will bring in great opportunities for regional cooperation in dealing with an “unprecedented" dual crisis, Thai experts have said.
According to Dr Robin Ramcharan, a lecturer at the Webster University of Thailand and Executive Director of the Bangkok-based Asia Centre, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed itself to be not only a health crisis but also a crisis for development as supply chains and international trade are disrupted.
“This health and developmental crisis poses a challenge to ASEAN’s purported goal of achieving the SDGs (sustainable development goals). In light of this, there have been calls for ASEAN to step up its response to this situation,” he said.
He said ASEAN has recognised these challenges and in early April announced several initiatives, including establishing a regional COVID-19 response fund, sharing information, and co-ordinating strategies to ease the impact of the crisis on the economy and the people. The need for peace and stability in the East Sea was discussed in discussions with China, Japan and the Republic of Korea.
“Individual ASEAN members, especially Singapore, have taken decisive action that has led to flattening the curve of infection. However, for future crises, the speed of the reaction must be reviewed. An assessment must be made to whether faster action could have dramatically reduced the spread of the virus,” he noted.
According to Dr Ramcharan, the summit must consider addressing a number of challenges within ASEAN and between it and its dialogue partners. These include the need for accurate information on the infection rate, for transparency, better functional cooperation, rapid reaction capacity, and preventing outside interference in actions taken to contain the crisis.
Other measures for better co-ordination include the possibility of a regional stockpile of medical supplies and equipment and engaging the defence sector in humanitarian responses, he said, adding this crisis brings an opportunity for ASEAN to improve its co-ordination through technology, notably video-conferencing.
The summit is vital not only for ASEAN's centrality to regional politics and economics but also for fostering a better appreciation for each other’s approach to the Indo-Pacific concept.
This dialogue process has proven useful in managing affairs with external actors, especially big powers to preserve some balance of power in the region. The ASEAN Plus Three encourages intra-Asian multilateral co-operation, which has historically been absent. At this junction, medical co-operation should be the utmost priority.
Meanwhile, Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), said the summit is expected to draw much attention, as China, the Republic of Korea and Japan have implemented effective measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS)
He said, in the first outbreak in January, Southeast Asian countries seemed to have curbed the spread of the disease. Việt Nam seemed to prepare to announce the end of the epidemic by the end of February. However, new infections have been rapidly increasing, with potential factors that could turn the disease into a crisis beyond the control of the region.
He said this ASEAN+3 Special Summit is a very important event for ASEAN, in the context that the partner countries can support the bloc.
In addition, Dr Thitian stated that ASEAN's central role in the region is also under pressure if the bloc cannot stabilise the situation and solve the crisis.
If that happens, the COVID-19 pandemic will take away many of the achievements ASEAN has made over the years. Therefore, this is a very important time that Việt Nam and ASEAN need to give priority to fighting COVID-19, he said.
According to Dr Ramcharan, one can not ignore the fact that the health crisis has led to a grinding halt to ASEAN activities. Việt Nam has guided ASEAN well during this crisis, including taking the responsible step of postponing the ASEAN summit until June 2020.
Việt Nam has engaged in all possible channels of communication. It has guided a cohesive response by ASEAN through the ASEAN Chairman’s Statement on ASEAN Collective Response to the Outbreak of COVID-19. At the request of Viet Nam, the ASEAN Coordination Council convened in Laos on February 20. It also proposed the creation of an ACC Working Group on Public Health Emergencies, which was adopted.
Việt Nam has also called for better sharing of information, improving relations between national and regional agencies and strengthening international collaboration to address the crisis. It has kept its word in pursuing during its Chairmanship the theme “Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN”.
Việt Nam has been hailed for its exemplary handling of the crisis, given the much lower infection rate and no deaths. It announced strict measures much earlier than other parts of the region. Among the good measures are strict contact tracing to identify and isolate infected persons and their second and third-hand contacts, and strict monitoring of suspected infections. As the second wave of the virus seems to be coming, Việt Nam would do well to implement nationwide testing.
Meanwhile, Dr Thitinan recommends that Việt Nam needs to keep a close watch on the situation and effectively address immediate challenges. At the same time, it should play the role of co-ordinating epidemic prevention and control in ASEAN and between the bloc and its partner countries, first of all in sharing information on best practices in disease prevention and treatment.
Việt Nam has resources such as test kits that can be shared with or transferred to other countries in the region, he said, adding that the country also needs to rearrange all agendas of ASEAN, as well as other ASEAN-led frameworks such as the East Asia Summit, in the context of the pandemic. —VNS