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Tuesday, November 09, 2021, 10:21 (GMT+7)
ASEAN overcomes challenges to assert its communal values in response to COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been bringing about an unprecedented crisis all over the world, including ASEAN. The pandemic’s complex, prolonged developments, danger, and large scale have made the merely traditional use of economic, political, or medical strength of a nation unable to work out; therefore, there is a need for promoting the overall power of the entire ASEAN Community.

While the number of COVID-19 cases has unceasingly increased, we have witnessed a decrease in all indicators of socio-economic and human development. The world has recorded over 239 million COVID-19 cases, including more than 4,872,000 deaths. COVID-19 has seriously disrupted supply chains globally, leading to a record decrease of 9% in the total trade value of the world in 2020; global trade in goods alone dropped by 16.5%. The world GDP has been decreased by over 4,000 billion USD in 2020 and the first half of 2021. Within ASEAN, there have been 11,079,979 cases and 244,961 deaths recorded from COVID-19. In 2020, ASEAN GDP was reduced by 3.3% and its total trade value dropped by 5.5% due to social distancing and restrictions on commerce and travel. The people are confronted with job loss, reduction of working hours and pay, hunger, poverty, and inequality, posing more serious threats to each country’s national security and development together with unpredictable consequences. Differences in vaccination programmes amongst ASEAN member states have made recovery efforts more difficult.

However, ASEAN’s pioneering and core role in responding to challenges in the Asia-Pacific Region is being acknowledged thanks to this organisation’s improved connectivity and cooperation in COVID-19 prevention and control.

Whole-of-Community Response and Whole-of-Community Action

ASEAN Community is entering a central period of realising the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, with further, newer goals for the sake of regional peace, sustainable stability, development, and durable prosperity. However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and its long-lasting consequences have posed new challenges and will possibly slow down the Community’s development and cooperation efforts in the political-security, economic, and cultural-social fields.

Against that backdrop, drastically, opportunely, comprehensively, and synchronously implementing measures within the whole ASEAN Community is of utmost importance to preventing the pandemic’s severer risks, maintaining cooperation, enhancing recovery efforts, and providing a solid foundation for sustainable development in the foreseeable future. More than ever before, the fight against COVID-19 has become a shared responsibility.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, ASEAN member states have given priorities to ensuring their citizens’ safety, providing support for one another, and helping ASEAN citizens facing difficulties caused by COVID-19. Hence, a sense of unity and more importantly international cooperation are seen as the most essential elements.

Having experienced previous pandemics, such as SARS (2002-2003) and MERS (2012), ASEAN has really demonstrated its rapid, timely response to the common challenge as well as its bonding capacity relating to coordinated policies and action amongst its members. On December 14th, 2021, ASEAN had released the Chairman’s Statement on ASEAN collective response to COVID-19 and then a series of ministerial-level meetings in the health, economic, defence, tourism, agricultural, and forestry areas were organised to ensure synchronous, inter-sectorial cooperation during COVID-19 prevention and control.

It is worth mentioning that Special ASEAN Summit and ASEAN Plus Three Summit (including China, Japan, and South Korea) on COVID-19 were held and released Joint Statements on April 14th, 2020. Under the chair of Vietnam, leaders of the countries worked towards orientations and measures for the three key spheres of cooperation, namely controlling and preventing the pandemic, ensuring safety of citizens of member states, and reducing the pandemic’s economic and social impacts.

An online ASEAN Plus Three Senior Officials Meeting (photo: mod.gov.vn)

Urgent action and practical outcome

Under those above-mentioned orientations, many practical initiatives of ASEAN on cooperative response to COVID-19 and the risks of the pandemic have been announced and applied as follows.

ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund established in 2020 during Vietnam’s ASEAN Chairmanship has attracted more than 20.8 million USD from ASEAN member states and partners. ASEAN has planned to use 10.5 million USD from the Fund to purchase COVID-19 vaccines (via UNICEF and COVAX mechanism) for citizens under an equal proportion. Up to now, the agreement between ASEAN and UNICEF on vaccine supply has been completed to soon provide vaccines for member states.

ASEAN reserve warehouse of emergency medical supplies has also received a large quantity of face masks, medical protective clothing, sanitiser, and COVID-19 test kits and medicine to readily provide for ASEAN member states. Vietnam has been committed to contributing 5 million USD to the ASEAN reserve warehouse, expressing its goodwill of support for others in difficulty.

ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework has been actively realised, with a focus on improving the region’s public health capacity, maximising the intra-bloc market’s potential, stepping up economic connectivity, and taking advantage of innovation, creativity, and digital transformation as an incentive for recovery. To facilitate essential travel within the region, ASEAN completed and submitted the ASEAN Travel Corridor Arrangement Framework to the 38th ASEAN Summit (October 2021) for approval.

Besides, ASEAN has designed and applied ASEAN Strategic Framework for Public Health Emergencies to ensure that the region will always readily respond to emerging epidemic-related challenges in a standard, effective way. ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (Japan contributes 50 billion USD and Australia is committed to donating 21 million USD) is in progress and will serve as a regional information and coordination centre for this field.

ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group on Public Health Emergencies (ACCWG-PHE) led by Vietnam in 2020 developed many specific, practical proposals and initiatives.

Intra-bloc cooperation is necessary, but ASEAN is also thirsty for greater cooperation, support, and resources from its partners and other countries around the world to keep the pandemic under control more effectively. Therefore, special summits between ASEAN and its partners, such as China, EU, the U.S., Australia, and Russia have been proposed and organised with the highest frequency recorded in the history of cooperation between the Association and its partners. As a result, many partners have been committed to practically contributing to the region’s COVID-19 prevention and control efforts, particularly the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund. Hundreds of millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines from all over the world have been delivered to the region to accelerate vaccination programmes and opportunely prevent the spread of the pandemic. Partners have also pledged to assist ASEAN in improving its preventive medicine capacity, researching and developing COVID-19 vaccines, and enhancing the region’s self-reliance in vaccines.

In tandem with efforts of pandemic prevention, ASEAN and its partners have given priorities to maintaining and fostering economic integration, commercial exchange, and investment, stabilising supply chains, taking advantage of the existing FTAs, and quickly putting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) into effect. At the same time, consideration has been given to developing infrastructures, stepping up digital transformation, and facilitating more sustainable, environmentally friendly development after the pandemic. Those pledges are of both long-term and short-term significance to ASEAN.

It can’t be denied that the central role of ASEAN and the effectiveness of ASEAN-led cooperative mechanisms have been promoted in the handling of emerging challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic. ASEAN has effectively implemented intra-bloc initiatives and taken advantage of its partners’ support to respond to the pandemic. In spite of the pandemic’s complex developments within the region at present, global and regional organisations have all been optimistic about the recovery and growth of ASEAN member states in 2021.

Vietnam’s courage, knowledge, and experience

In any circumstance, Vietnam has always devoted effort to working with other member states to steer ASEAN out of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crisis, and intense strategic competitions around the world.

Under Vietnam’s chairmanship in 2020, ASEAN was really flexible and proactively adapted itself to changes and situations. The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges; therefore, there should be unprecedented solutions. In 2020, Vietnam undertook the role as the ASEAN Chair; many initiatives were “first” proposed to achieve the preset targets. The number of conferences was considerably increased to opportunely respond to COVID-19. ASEAN Summit was organised 3 times within a year. Many senior-level and ministerial meetings were first held online together with the signing of a lot of important documents. More importantly, that success has been providing us with valuable lessons on mobilising collective strength on both regional and global scale and creating standards for responding to human race’s common challenges.

The theme of ASEAN 2020: “a cohesive and responsive ASEAN,” the way of proposing priorities, ideas, and initiatives, the method of preparing and chairing conferences, and the development of joint documents all manifested the Community’s benefits and relevant parties’ own concerns. Besides, initiatives demonstrated a comprehensive, synchronous approach with “a sense of Community,” for citizens of ASEAN in cooperation to repel and adapt to the pandemic and gradually make a comprehensive recovery. Doing so has helped achieve “a more cohesive ASEAN Community” and cement the people’s faith in the Community.

In his article to celebrate ASEAN’s 54th founding anniversary, Member of the Party Central Committee and Minister of Foreign Affairs Bui Thanh Son wrote: “many significant initiatives of 2020 have become ASEAN’s shared assets.” Those achievements act as the lodestar for ASEAN to overcome all difficulties, facilitate the building of a people-oriented and people-centred ASEAN Community, and prove the Community’s values against all challenges.

NGUYEN QUOC DUNG, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs

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