SINGAPORE - Amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and escalating United States-China tensions, Asean's brand of inclusive regionalism - where it puts both minds and resources together to solve common challenges - remains a critical asset.
This was the key conclusion drawn by panellists at a webinar, Covid-19 In Asia: Navigating Geopolitical Risks Amid Unprecedented Disruptions, on Tuesday (Aug 18).
The webinar was jointly organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Indonesia's Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
The discussion was moderated by RSIS senior fellow Kwa Chong Guan, with veteran diplomat Ong Keng Yong, who is executive deputy chairman of RSIS, making brief welcome remarks.
In her opening speech, RSIS international relations professor Mely Caballero-Anthony said that the coronavirus emerged at a time when the international strategic environment was already undergoing a lot of flux.
She said that since the start of the Trump administration, the US "has rapidly become more isolationist, protectionist, less interested in multilateralism, and visibly absent in the global arena".
She added that countries in the region must rethink three long-held assumptions: first, the continued role of the US as a provider of regional and global security; second, sustained economic development, given that the pandemic has disrupted supply chains and production networks; and third, what she called the "China card", including the widening power asymmetry between Asean and China, a country which has become more assertive militarily and diplomatically.
As tensions sharpen between the two major powers, Asean cannot simply be a bystander, she said, but must capitalise on existing institutions and platforms such as the Asean Regional Forum, the Asean Economic Community and the Regional Comprehensive Partnership to promote regional security and prosperity.
"Asean cannot be content to only be the convener of meetings, but must capitalise on the privilege of being agenda-setters, facilitating problem-solving with partners rather than settling for declarations that are more aspirational in nature," she said.
As Asean is integral to global supply chains, Covid-19 presents it with the opportunity to take advantage of re-shoring and the reconfiguration of these supply chains, added Prof Caballero-Anthony.
She cited, as an example, subsidies that the Japanese government is providing to encourage its companies to bring production centres back from China to Japan, and to diversify or relocate to countries in South-east Asia.
"Asean's brand of inclusive regionalism remains a precious asset, and represents a unique opportunity to actually put minds and resources together to address common challenges," she said, citing economic resilience, food security, and therapeutics and vaccines as areas where Asean can do more.
She suggested that Asean, by working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and countries such as Germany, Japan and Britain, can join the global supply chain for vaccines, such as by producing vials and syringes.
Agreeing, fellow panellist and CSIS executive director Philips Vermonte noted that the Asean-WHO partnership could be enhanced - not just to ensure that critical medical supplies can reach countries that need them, but also to help Asean member states better fulfil their obligations under international health regulations.
A commitment to multilateralism requires domestic support and reform too, he said.
"How we can convince our citizens that multilateralism will serve, and not threaten, their national interests? Even strong governments need to convince their citizens," Dr Vermonte said.
"The inertia of many governments - the slowness, unresponsiveness and unpreparedness - cost them a lot."
There is also the problem of mistrust of institutions such as governments and the media, he added.
"It is an issue of convincing citizens that other countries might (be able to) help us. We need to revive trust in information - good information, responsible and evidence-based information. This is something that has been missing before Covid-19."