COVID-19: Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

by Chris Alden and Charles Dunst

Southeast Asia has surprisingly not been ravaged by COVID-19—despite its high-density cities and relatively low standard of living in many countries. There have been fewer than 50,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,700 deaths in Southeast Asia.

The ASEAN has held a number of meetings to address the ongoing pandemic, including with the United States, China and the European Union, but these discussions have produced little concrete action. The pandemic also forced the cancellation of both U.S. President Donald Trump’s planned March Las Vegas summit with ASEAN leaders and 36th ASEAN summit scheduled for 6-9 April in Vietnam (now rescheduled for late June).

ASEAN has sought cooperation with its foreign partners. In mid-February, the foreign ministers of ASEAN and China met in Laos to discuss joint response measures. In early April, ASEAN senior officials teleconferenced with the United States to promote coordination between the two sides (the US later provided $18.3 million in aid to ASEAN). Vietnam, the current Chair of ASEAN, soon after held an ASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, and South Korea) summit via teleconference in which leaders agreed to strengthen the region’s pandemic warning system and explored establishing a COVID-19 response fund. On 23 April (22 April, Washington time), ASEAN foreign ministers met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to discuss cooperation, among other issues. Later that month, ASEAN held its 29th Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Trade Negotiating Committee meeting, promising to sign the agreement—a proposed free trade agreement between the ten member states of ASEAN and six dialogue partners, namely China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand—into law in 2020.

On 29 April, ASEAN tourism ministers met to discuss the region’s future of tourism, a sector upon which many of the countries rely. (Tourist revenue accounts for 18 percent of GDP in Cambodia and 14 percent in Thailand.) And on 6 May, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc spoke by phone with US President Donald Trump (“at the request of the United States,” according to Vietnamese media); Trump commended Vietnam’s response to the pandemic and thanked Phúc for supplying the U.S. with masks and medical equipment, also offering Vietnam ventilators and suggesting the two countries cooperate further on disease prevention. And for good measure, Trump told Phúc that he regrets the postponement of the US-ASEAN Special Summit.

Ultimately, ASEAN’s overall approach to the pandemic has been largely superficial. And yet, Southeast Asia has surprisingly not been ravaged by COVID-19 - despite its high-density cities and relatively low standard of living in many countries. There have been fewer than 50,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,700 deaths in Southeast Asia. The overwhelming majority of these cases have been in Singapore (which, after neglecting its migrant population, experienced an uptick in cases) and Indonesia, which, along with the Philippines, leads the region in deaths (around 600 and 800, respectively).

Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei have all reported no deaths, but the weak state capacity in the first two, coupled with the autocratic and opaque nature of all three, has left observers skeptical about the veracity of these numbers. But Vietnam, a one-party state, has been incredibly transparent and also reported zero deaths. Vietnam restricted movement, favoring caution over precision because of its lacking capacity to carry out South Korea-like mass testing. The Vietnamese government has also launched a government website and application to disseminate accurate information quickly. What’s more, Vietnamese state-linked hackers hacked the email accounts of staff at China’s Ministry of Emergency Management and the government of Wuhan, seemingly distrusting China’s data and, accordingly, seeking more information on the outbreak. And now, Vietnam is trying to export its model, also donating test kits and masks (which, unlike those from China, have not proven defective) to Cambodia, Laos, the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, and others. 

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