COVID-19 & ASEAN: EVERY NATION FOR ITSELF
by Rizal Hamdan 28th April 2020
At the beginning of 2020, 2 leaders in ASEAN start the year with a fresh mandate, after winning the general election in their respective countries. Mr. Joko Widodo was re-elected as the President of the Republic of Indonesia, despite a bruising battle against a former general, Prabowo Subianto.
Post-2019 General Election Thailand, multiple parties declared support for military junta leader, General Prayut Chan-O-Cha as the next Prime Minister. Hence, prolonging the military legacy in Thailand's politics.
Meanwhile in Malaysia, an eclectic coalition of parties and interest groups under the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) is celebrating its 2nd anniversary as the government. Barisan Nasional (National Front), the ruling coalition for almost six decades, was voted out by a simple majority on the 9th of May 2018. After 2 years in power, the government which was democratically elected by the people was overthrown as a result of power manoeuvre among the ethnoreligious political factions led by Muhyiddin Yassin and his accomplices.
In the Philippines, President Dueterte strengthens his autocratic leadership in Manila soon after his political allies have won a majority of the 12 Senate seats at stake in the midterm election.
At the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore's ruling party, The Progressive Action Party (PAP) is gathering any possible machinery and set to win the next general election, scheduled in September this year. Nonetheless, other countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, and Brunei Darussalam are addressing their internal problems respectively.
10 ASEAN countries without exception are recuperating from 'the global economy synchronized slowdown' for the past few years. Nevertheless, the 'numero uno' question is, to what extent the global economic slowdown and the outbreak of the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic could influence the geopolitical of ASEAN?
The Pandora Box Has Been Opened
COVID-19 broke out in the middle of the US-China Trade War. This ongoing economic conflict between the superpowers has left other countries caught in the crossfire. According to the Eurasia Group (Top Risk 2020, Corona Virus Edition), the economic tension between these superpowers would affect not just the USD 5 Trillion worth global tech sector but also have had a fair share to disrupt other industries and institutions as well.
The virus was first detected in Wuhan province in December 2019. Therefore, China was the first country severely affected when the virus broke out. As the situation was getting out of control, within a month it had infected hundreds of thousands of people across the country.
The virus spread rapidly like wildfire, crossing borders and has turned into a global pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed COVID-19 as a pandemic on 11th March 2020. The evil has long gone from the pandora box!
Southeast Asia as a region has a long tradition of movement of people from one place to another as a result of a porous border and inter-cultural exchanges between countries. The best example is the historical ties between Malaysia and Indonesia.
COVID 19 spreading rapidly through the movement of the people across the border. The majority of ASEAN countries fumbled their initial response at the beginning of the outbreak. It seems like no country reacts accordingly to curb the spreading of the pandemic.
On the 28th of January 2020, the then Malaysia's Tourism, Arts & Culture, Mr.Ketapi dismissed any suggestion to revise the Visit Malaysia 2020, a tourism campaign that expected to generate RM 30 million for the country.
Despite the virus was already spreading in China (The National Health Commission reported 2,700 infections cases as 27th January 2020), there was no initial plan from the government to promptly stop the inflow of the tourist Malaysia-China, vice versa.
Indonesia, despite a warning by the government due to the alarming infection rate of the virus in other ASEAN countries, a mass religious gathering was planned in South Sulawesi. To date, Indonesia has not officially enforced a lockdown or the movement control order, citing it is not easy to implement it in a country with more than 270 million people and thousands of scattered islands. As of 27th April 2020, there are 9,096 confirmed cases, 765 death toll, and 1,151 recovery cases in Indonesia.
Indonesian's death toll itself is the highest in ASEAN. Inadequate medical facilities and test kits for the entire population, the most populated country in ASEAN is a ticking time bomb. It is just a matter of time for it to explode. At this juncture, no assistance might come from the neighbouring countries, as other countries are struggling just to handle the emergency at home.
The outbreak of COVID 19 has forced ASEAN members' countries to implement an inward policy rather than upholding the spirit of regional friendship and 'prosper thy neighbour'. Every nation for itself!
COVID 19 & the Food Supply in ASEAN
Apart from the devastating economic impact, the most legitimate question with regards to the COVID 19 impact on ASEAN, to what extent our food supply remains sufficient throughout the crisis? As I mentioned above, this is a stage of every nation for itself. Therefore, what I foresee, there will be a disruption of food supply across the region if the virus remains at the alarming rates.
As the lockdown will still be imposed, the cycle of goods production will inevitably be disrupted, hence we will reach the level of food shortage soon. The main challenges which will disrupt the food supply are transportation, logistics, and distribution.
Since the pandemic outbreak, many countries have taken drastic measures in an attempt to curb the virus from spreading, including border closures and imposing a lockdown. Thus, it inevitably affected the transportation of goods and supplies.
The staple food for the normal diet in Asia depends very much on rice. On the 27th of March 2020, Vietnam announced plans to stockpile rice and suspend new rice export contracts to ensure it enough for domestic consumption (97 million populations) during the time of crisis. For the record, Vietnam is the world's third-largest exporter of rice, behind India and Thailand.
The rice farming industry in Thailand was badly affected by the worst drought in decades that is affecting many rice farming areas. Therefore, Vietnam's decision to stop the export of rice will subsequently increase the price, to meet the international market's demand.
If the supply of rice has suddenly become unavailable in the market, the Philippines will be in a stage of the national crisis (to feed 106.7 million populations). As the major importer of rice, the Philippines is prone to food shortage and most likely depends on the dry season harvest, which is sufficient for at least another 2 months. I predict smaller countries in ASEAN like Cambodia, Laos, and Brunei will have to experience the same shortage if the pandemic still rages on beyond December 2020.
Malaysia, on the other hand, has more than four to six month's worth stockpiles to feed the population of 32.37 million if the crisis is prolonged. According to research conducted by Khazanah Research Institute, there are 150,000 metric tonnes of rice, prepared for emergencies.
Meanwhile, Singapore depends on 90% of its food from neighboring countries such as Malaysia. A Ministry of Trade and Industry said the government has already set a contingency plan to ensure enough food and essential supplies, under pretext, that consumers will buy responsibly. Singapore has already prepared itself to go through a difficult time soon.
As far as I concern, bigger countries like Thailand and Indonesia are resilient in facing possible disruption of the food supply. These countries are known for self-sustain food production, thanks to the agricultural policies of the governments.
Every country in ASEAN relatively has a stockpile of food that could last for one year. Nonetheless, if the crisis rages on for more than a year, does it mean we may face a possibility of a food shortage that may lead to a humanitarian crisis?
Post-COVID 19: Quo Vadis ASEAN?
The outbreak of COVID 19 is happening amid the trade war between superpowers. Hence, it leads to speculation, was it a biological weapon? Nonetheless, let us not jump into the bandwagon too soon without concrete support from scientific data and evidence.
Political Analysts like Ian Bremmer (Eurasia Group), Kurt Campbell, and Rush Doshi have raised a vital question about China's possibility to take over leadership of the world post-pandemic.
The United States of America (the USA) influence in global leadership has declined significantly for the past 10 years. When the pandemic broke out, almost every country like the USA and its European allies are busy managing the emergency at home. The death tolls and infected cases are rising day by day.
On the other hand, the situation in China has gradually become better compared to a few months ago. Bremmer argued when the pandemic had reached the level of crisis, people started to question how well does American democracy functions? Are other systems more effective?
Despite an attempt to cover up the pandemic at the beginning, China, a technologically empowered authoritarian state has advantages to respond to a pandemic quicker than any democratic state. It is worth acknowledging the digital Chinese economy is 50 times the size of the digital USA economy.
The extraordinary data concentration in a smartphone makes tracking system an easy task to be done. Hence, is the world post-COVID 19 will be led by China or the Chinese mold democracy?
Meanwhile, ASEAN countries are struggling to curb the outbreak of pandemic by implementing several approaches. For instance, border closure, lockdown (Circuit breaker in Singapore or Movement of Control Order in Malaysia), thorough medical testing et cetera.
However, as I suggest in my argument, every country is busy managing emergency at home and lack of coordination and assistance from the regional organization give a negative impression among the people.
The former Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marty Natalegawa had criticized the way ASEAN handling and response to the crisis promptly. In his opinion published in Bangkok Post (11 February 2020), Natalegawa emphasized:
"It demands that ASEAN demonstrate concrete leadership in keeping with its often-cited claims".
Therefore, the absence of regional leadership during the time of crisis may lead to a question "does ASEAN is still relevant in the age of Industrial Revolution 4.0?" I do understand the nature of ASEAN as nothing more than a regional platform to coordinate and not to regulate laws and orders.
Nonetheless, it is appalling to see a lack of coordination between members at the regional level. This will lead to my other question, how are we going to handle other pressing challenges of the region in the future such as the Chinese encroachment into ASEAN countries' maritime borders, for example, the case of the South China Sea?
As someone who has a passion for political risk analysis, I predict a few challenges on the future of ASEAN amidst (and post) the outbreak of COVID 19:
1) The emergence of the authoritarian leadership & extreme nationalism in ASEAN country members, when democracy, seems fumbled & inadequate to provide an appropriate response to the crisis?
2) Maintaining ASEAN integration efforts post-COVID 19 (negotiations for immigration policy, working permit for a certain country, standardize regional health mechanism for a migrant worker, border control of each ASEAN's countries).
3) The vulnerability of food supply. Every country must review agricultural policy to encourage self-sufficient food production. In light of the Industrial Revolution 4.0, most of us have forgotten the most basic human needs, food!
In reality, most of ASEAN country members are ill-prepared in managing non-traditional security-crisis like the outbreak of a pandemic. As everyone is busy to ensure their house in order, helping each other is out of a question. Once again, every nation for itself!
Lastly, I conclude my opinion with an essential question for us to ponder:
Does it mean ASEAN may undergo a geopolitical recession soon?
It is happening now and it definitely will be a new normal that we have to cope with in the future.
Rizal Hamdan is the Executive Director of NADI Centre.