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[ASEAN ISSUE #2] COVID-19 Outbreak and ASEAN+3 Regional Cooperation

COVID-19 Outbreak and ASEAN+3 Regional Cooperation



It has been 100 days after the first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in China, and the COVID-19 outbreak has now become a global health disaster with more than 1.4 million confirmed cases and over 85,000 deceased as of 9 April. Unemployment rate is rapidly increasing as businesses are closing down under the movement restrictions imposed by government authorities to stop the spread of infections. International Labor Organization (ILO) predicts the number of job losses caused by the COVID-19 will exceed 25 million while the World Trade Organization (WTO) expects global trade to sharply drop by 13-32 percent.

Faced with such an unprecedented health security and economic crisis, the international community is working together for collective response through various platforms. The G7 leaders gathered via a video conference on March 16, and 10 days later, the Extraordinary G20 Leaders’ Summit was convened virtually. Regional-level cooperation that complements global efforts has also been discussed. ASEAN and Plus Three countries (China, Japan and Korea) announced that ASEAN+3 leaders will hold a special summit via video conference next week to seek cooperative measures to tackle COVID-19.

Among many international cooperation platforms, ASEAN+3 summit draws particular attention. Initiated in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, the ASEAN+3 mechanism has steadily built its institutional capacity for practical regional cooperation in various areas. Over the past two decades, it has been the main vehicle towards a long-term goal of building an East Asian community, with a total of 21 ministerial and senior officials’ meetings in various sectors ranging from political, economy, finance, health, labor, education and social welfare. Naturally, the ASEAN+3 mechanism has not always been successful, particularly when relations were strained among the Plus Three countries. However, with the region facing a new challenge, the COVID-19 surge, it is time for ASEAN+3 to once again demonstrate its relevance and importance in this region.

The following is a summary of the history of ASEAN Plus Three cooperation, with particular focus on the public health cooperation.

■ History of ASEAN Plus Three Cooperation

In the 1990s, East Asia achieved rapid economic growth and strengthened intra-regional interdependence through the expansion of mutual trade and investment and global free trade system as communist bloc integrated into the world economy after the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile, despite the vigorous exchanges between the countries in the region, multilateral cooperation at the regional level had not attracted much attention. After the outbreak of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, however, the importance of East Asia regional cooperation came into the limelight.

The financial crisis that struck East Asia amid its rapid growth revealed the close ties between countries in the region which was already in the path toward economic community-building process. Against such backdrop, the need for closer regional cooperation to cope with transnational issues was evoked, and upon the proposal by then-ASEAN Chair Malaysia, the inaugural ASEAN Plus Three Summit was assembled in December 1997. Since its launch, the ASEAN+3 mechanism has established the foundation for substantive cooperation in various areas including political-security, economy and socio-culture, through its annual summits and ministerial and senior officials’ meetings.

ASEAN+3 cooperation has developed particularly in the finance and economy sectors. It is partly because it was initiated amid a financial crisis, but also due to the long-standing ASEAN principle of non-interference. Hence rather than cooperation in the fields of political-security which may raise sensitive issues to some members, economic cooperation promoting mutual prosperity and development was much more pursuable. To secure regional financial stability, ASEAN+3 launched the Chiang Mai Initiative, a bilateral currency swap scheme among the member states which later expanded to multilateral level (CMIM), enhancing the framework closer to a regional monetary fund. In addition, the Asian Bond Market Initiative (ABMI) was promoted to support stable capital flow, and in 2011, the ASEAN Plus Three Macroeconomic Research Organization (AMRO) was established to monitor regional economic trends so as to detect and prevent recurrence of major financial crises. In terms of trade, all Plus Three countries signed Free Trade Agreements with ASEAN (CEPA for Japan), and last year, all 13 countries plus Australia and New Zealand reached an agreement on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a mega FTA that, when in force, will potentially account for 40 percent of global trade. The experience of practical cooperation in finance and economy areas has gradually expanded to non-traditional security and socio-cultural areas such as environment, labor, culture and disaster relief, and has made significant progress in the public health sector as well.

■ ASEAN+3 Public Health Cooperation Trends

The ASEAN+3 public health cooperation began with a joint response to HIV/AIDS during the summit in 2001. In early 2003, the SARS outbreak in the region led to the convening of the ASEAN Plus Three Special Health Ministers´ Meetings in April and June of that year to jointly combat the spread of the epidemic disease. Since 2004, ASEAN Plus Three Health Ministers´ Meeting was institutionalized to be held biennially, and moreover, health ministers of ASEAN+3 assembled special meetings when new types of infectious diseases threatened the region and the globe, such as the Swine Flu (H1N1) in 2009, Ebola in West Africa in 2014 and the spread of MERS in 2015. The ministers also arranged special video conferences to maintain close communication and seek practical countermeasures as necessary when physical meetings were limited. Regional cooperation for public health has been also discussed at summit-level. The 21st ASEAN Plus Three Summit in 2018 adopted a statement of cooperation in healthcare that jointly responds to the issue of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and last November, the leaders acknowledged the commitments to collaborate on prevention, detection and response to public health threats at the 22nd Summit in Bangkok.

According to the 2019 Global Health Security Index (GHS Index), among 195 countries studied, six ASEAN+3 countries (Thailand (6th), Korea (9th), Malaysia (18th), Japan (21st), Singapore (24th), and Indonesia (30th)) ranked in the top 30 based on the categories of health security: prevention, detection and reporting, rapid response, health system, compliance with international norms, and risk environment. Expanding the list to top 55 makes the total to nine ASEAN+3 countries, with the addition of Vietnam (50th), China (51st), and the Philippines (53rd) joining the top group. Thailand scored high in prevention (3rd), rapid response (5th), and health system (2nd); Korea received high evaluations in early detection and reporting (5th) and rapid response (6th); Indonesia received good reviews in terms of commitment to improving national capacity and adherence to international norms (7th).

As such the conditions are favorable to push for cooperation in preventing and responding to epidemic diseases at the regional level. Furthermore, it is also to be noted that most of the emerging infectious diseases such as SARS, Swine Flu, MERS and COVID-19 were either discovered or spread widely in many East Asian countries over the past two decades. Hence a closer ASEAN+3 health cooperation is no longer an option, but a necessity for the prevention and eradication of epidemic diseases in East Asia.

The recent G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held by video conference concluded without adopting a joint statement due to the spar over terminology for the novel coronavirus between major countries. The G20 Extraordinary Summit was more fruitful to produce a statement promising member states’ commitment to international cooperation to overcome the crisis. Alongside the global efforts, the ASEAN Plus Three Summit, to be convened virtually in the following week, is anticipated to discuss practical health cooperation including information sharing on the development of COVID-19 treatments, supporting medical supplies, and joint action for prevention, as well as ways to revitalize regional economy such as stabilizing the manufacturing system and preventing collapse of regional and global supply chain. As COVID-19 outbreak threatens the region and the globe, it is time for ASEAN+3 to step up and lead the regional cooperation to demonstrate its relevance, as well as the regional capacity and resilience.


Global Health Security Index (NIS, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security)

Jayant Menon, Global leadership is flagging. Can ASEAN or ASEAN+3 step up? (ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute)

조한승, 한국의 보건안보와 동아시아 보건협력 거버넌스의 필요성 (동북아 신흥안보 거버넌스, 사회평론아카데미)배긍찬, 동아시아 지역협력의 새로운 전기를 마련하다 (한-아세안 외교 30년을 말하다, 국립외교원 아세안·인도연구센터)

This is a translated version of an article written in Korean, titled ‘코로나19를 통해 보는 아세안+3와 동아시아 지역협력’. The original article was published on 10 April 2020.

[ASEAN ISSUE #1] COVID-19 and ASEAN [ASEAN ISSUE #3] The Impact of COVID-19 on ASEAN Economy