Multilateralism in times of crisis: Will ASEAN succeed in responding to COVID-19 pandemic?

India caught most of us by surprise by calling an emergency virtual South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) meeting recently. The organization, comprised of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, has been pronounced to be in “coma” as progress has stalled since as recently as 2016 — mostly attributed to the antagonism between Pakistan and India.

The emergency virtual meeting came into fruition when the meeting decided to establish the SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund, by which USD 18.8 million was collected from all SAARC member states, except Pakistan, with USD 10 million alone was contributed by India.

India’s embrace of multilateralism should serve as a nudge to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): if in a region as hot (in terms of cold-war style antagonism and conflict) as South Asia, countries can cooperate in unity in times of crisis, can countries in Southeast Asia do the same?

The initial judgement would lead to the thinking that Southeast Asia can do better. ASEAN is way more institutionalised than SAARC. Southeast Asian countries have been in relatively peaceful relationships compared to their South Asian counterparts. So why haven’t we heard anything even close from ASEAN?

Many great International Relations thinkers and scholars have called for ASEAN to unite and fight the pandemic in close cooperation. Among them are Thitinan Pongsudhirak and Jusuf Wanandi, who have written recently to express the urgency of ASEAN’s bold move amidst this pandemic.

While it is true that ASEAN has taken small steps in the right direction, a bolder, more concrete move is definitely expected from ASEAN. As early as February 20, ASEAN along with China held the special ASEAN-China Foreign Minister’s Meeting on the Coronavirus Disease in Viantiane, Laos. Earlier this week, ASEAN’s ten member states met again through a virtual meeting under the framework of the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group (ACCWG) on Public Health Emergencies.

During the ACCWG on Public Health Emergencies meeting, Indonesia called for ASEAN to hold an ASEAN virtual summit. Indonesia also called for the ASEAN Plus Three (along with China, Japan, and South Korea) to also conduct a virtual summit. This might correspond with Jusuf Wanandi’s earlier call — who called for an East Asian Summit (EAS) level initiative. And that is a good thing.

Indonesia’s initiative is indeed laudable. Indonesia might have learnt its lessons from the recent G20 virtual summit, which resulted in the mobilization of USD 4 billion to fight the pandemic.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo during G20 Virtual Summit 2020.

Earlier on, Indonesia has also called for support from countries for its COVID-19 United Nations General Assembly Draft Resolution, as noted by Prashanth Parameswaran. Noting these initiative in recent days, it is not surprising that Indonesia also calls on ASEAN, its most immediate neighbors, and most trustworthy friends, to act.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, most ASEAN countries have been acting by themselves. For example, countries have restricted travels, closed borders, and fight the disease with minimum consultation with each other — at least that we know of.

Randy Nandyatama, an International Relations lecturer at Universitas Gadjah Mada and an expert on ASEAN, described that ASEAN is currently facing a “stag hunt”, a game theory concept wherein countries have to choose between cooperation toward larger payoffs or individually seeking smaller outcomes.

With an ASEAN virtual summit, it is expected that the regional grouping can act in a more cohesive manner. What can ASEAN countries talk about during the virtual summit? As prescribed by Jusuf Wanandi, ASEAN member states can exchange available epidemiological information, technical guidelines and solutions for epidemic prevention and control, diagnosis, treatment and surveillance with a view to enhancing capacity in emerging preparedness and response.

The pressure on ASEAN to establish and agree upon a regional response is increasing. And whether or not ASEAN can succeed in curbing further negative impacts of COVID-19 pandemic is not for us to tell. What we know of is that ASEAN will doom multilateralism, should it choose not to act in unity.