ASEAN’s next crisis response and the implications for global partners

In 2020 the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) moved quickly during a global pandemic to halt the spread of Covid-19, with impressive mobilization at local, national and regional levels. Across such an economically and politically diverse group of countries, some fared better than others. The response to this ongoing crisis highlighted several important institutional strengths across this region of 650 million people. It also emphasized the range of financial, cultural, strategic and administrative vulnerabilities within the ASEAN region. This paper explores the response to the pandemic as a framework for understanding how ASEAN may handle future crises. It presents a brief analysis of the potential for improved regional responses to damaging health, conflict and natural disaster scenarios. In this context, ASEAN’s tentative answer to Myanmar’s February 2021 coup is a critical example of the regional body’s limited capacity for large-scale collective response. As potential partners for crisis response in Southeast Asia, the United States, China, Japan, the European Union, and Australia are all relevant to this discussion.

 

Introducing ASEAN crisis response

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the cooperative possibilities of local, national, regional and global responses as the world adjusted to a rolling health and economic crisis. Certain parts of the world have proved more effective in medical, logistical and financial terms, as they more quickly eliminated widespread community transmission and used other advantages, potentially including geography, culture and climate, to limit the spread of the dangerous virus. The variety of local and national consequences will provide a basis for analysis for many years to come as countries seek to appreciate the lessons from this crisis and prepare for future contingencies, including global pandemics. The shock and disruption caused by the pandemic have also generated consideration of the many different vulnerabilities present in 21st century societies. Supply chains, technology, commitment to shared goals and overall management of social cohesion were all extensively tested through 2020 and into 2021. The long-term social and financial consequences of the pandemic are also now subject to great speculation. It is appropriate that planning for different future scenarios is a major preoccupation for governments, businesses, and humanitarian organizations worldwide.

In 2020, the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a multilateral body bringing together around 650 million people, moved quickly to halt the spread of Covid-19, with impressive mobilization at local, national and regional levels.[1] Compared to many regions, Southeast Asia proved quite effective during the first year of the pandemic as it sought to manage local and national outbreaks. Some ASEAN countries, including Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand, were often held up as strong examples of robust and comprehensive national responses.[2] Their ability to limit the local spread of the virus through strict public health measures also allowed for some normalization of economic activity well before that was possible in North America or Europe. Nonetheless, the challenging roll-out of vaccines, a situation that has exacerbated ASEAN’s pre-existing inequalities, is a profound challenge for the entire region. The vast differences in economic strength, health system capability and logistical sophistication will mean ASEAN’s pandemic will, even in a scenario where vaccines prove highly effective, linger for years to come.[3] While Singapore has already vaccinated much of its population, some other countries have barely begun.

Covid-19 is not the first health crisis to generate upheaval across Southeast Asia, with the HIV/AIDS pandemic causing widespread illness and death through the 1990s and well into the 21st century.[4] In some countries, such as Thailand, significant public health responses eventually limited transmission rates. However, in some places, such as Myanmar, the treatment of HIV has continued to stretch public health systems. Covid-19 and HIV/AIDS, along with the SARS outbreak early in the 21st century, are important examples of the common challenges facing national health systems and the adjacent regional responses.[5] In both cases, across such an economically and politically diverse group of countries, it was inevitable that some would fare better than others. Both examples have also highlighted some institutional strengths across Southeast Asia, such as the rapid introduction of widely accepted public health initiatives and interventions.

Nonetheless, other crisis scenarios for Southeast Asia require careful attention, especially those that can test the region’s normative posture on “non- interference”.[6] The Covid-19 pandemic, by its nature, allowed governments to lock down and isolate, seeking to carve out zones of safety and order. Some countries, such as Australia, used pre-existing sub-national demarcations in dramatic, indeed unprecedented, fashion. Southeast Asia was divided by national borders, as usual, but also by geographical and logistical differences meaning that even normally well-connected nations, like Thailand and Indonesia, began to devolve into their local geographies. The fear of outsiders, a strong emotion during a health crisis, ensured that, within ASEAN, national priorities tended to trump an overall response. It is essential to recognize that the characteristics which have supported ASEAN’s pandemic response are part of a broader set of vulnerabilities, especially when faced with politically charged threats to security and stability. While a pandemic may allow for the temporary cessation of ordinary politics, most other crises are, from the beginning, linked to powerful social and political forces.[7]

Myanmar’s 2021 coup

When Myanmar’s military leadership seized power on 1 February 2021, the country’s flawed system of guided democracy came to a shuddering halt, a process that has been called “politicide”.[8] The detention of senior elected figures, including Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, precipitated a new nationwide crisis, with protestors targeting the new dictatorship in all corners of the country. Many of Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations, such as the Kachin Independence Organization and the Karen National Liberation Army, escalated their attacks on government security personnel. At the same time, protests grew in size and sophistication in towns and cities around Myanmar, with millions of people marching in well-organized defiance of military rule. By the end of April, thousands of people were detained for anti-coup agitation, and many others were in hiding, fearful of arrest. Over 700 protestors were killed in the first three months of the crackdown by the military regime, which calls itself the State Administration Council.

Internationally, Myanmar’s new military regime faced criticism for its disregard for the democratic system and its treatment of detainees and protestors.[9] One- sided showdowns between anti-coup activists and military units garnered sympathy for those facing war weapons in residential neighbourhoods. ASEAN leaders called for restraint, while European and North American governments expressed more robust views on the dangerous re-militarization of politics.[10] Countries like the United States and the United Kingdom imposed new sanctions and some others also offered strong statements of support for the democratic opposition.[11]

The coup presented a new challenge to ASEAN, which has long expressed public reluctance about any interventions into “internal affairs”.[12] Where the pandemic allowed some regional governments, especially ASEAN’s autocracies, to reinforce their strangleholds on power, Myanmar’s 2021 crisis raised troubling questions about the grouping’s tolerance for violence against civilian populations. ASEAN’s recent track record, as demonstrated in the lacklustre response to the anti-Rohingya pogrom in 2017, did not leave much room for optimism.[13] An ASEAN leaders summit held in Jakarta in late April 2021 produced a short summary of expectations but without any binding commitments or mechanisms for accountability. In Myanmar and elsewhere, ASEAN’s normalization of dictatorship allows it to bring everyone to the table, but without engaging the causes of political crisis or, most importantly, generating the broad-based dialogue, which would usually be a prerequisite for any potential resolution.

Future crises

How ASEAN responds to the Myanmar crisis and future crises will largely determine its credibility in Asia and further afield. While China endorses ASEAN’s role and cherishes the relatively comfortable balance between bilateral and multilateral engagement, the region’s dominant power also presents problems for Southeast Asia’s long-term diplomatic engagement.[14] Those risks are especially acute for Indonesia, which has invested heavily in the shibboleth of “ASEAN centrality”. In this frame, “centrality” is the suggestion that ASEAN can help balance great powers, especially the United States and China. It is a crucial, but contested, part of the diplomatic architecture drawing together an otherwise diffuse and disconnected set of Southeast Asian political systems.[15]

The subsequent invocation of an ASEAN “community”, formally announced in 2015, has not, however, diminished the strict observance of national boundaries and priorities.[16] ASEAN struggles for any of the coherence apparent in the institutional structures of the post-Brexit European Union.[17] Where ASEAN’s more consistently democratic societies, such as Indonesia and now Malaysia, may want to highlight the violent conduct of the Myanmar military, their contributions can be thwarted by, amongst others, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. These mainland Southeast Asian countries all draw significant value from ASEAN’s prestige and common reluctance to probe human rights questions.[18]

By contrast, ASEAN historically tends to be more proactive under conditions where a crisis can be attributed to external factors, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, or a politically “neutral” natural disaster. The Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and Cyclone Nargis in 2008 are two 21st century examples where, in the crisis response phase, ASEAN proved a key broker of regional and global assistance. Obviously, these crisis responses included political and strategic elements. Yet, such matters were de-emphasized to ensure timely delivery of humanitarian aid and the incorporation of relief capabilities from well beyond the Southeast Asian region, including from the United States, Australia and Japan.

In light of these experiences, it is highly unlikely that ASEAN will develop a vigorous capability for joint responses to political and strategic upheavals. However, there are good reasons to expect it will continue to fare better in scenarios where destructive natural forces are at play. The disparate interests and wide range of national ideologies make effective action on sensitive political matters almost inconceivable. Security and stability are often judged on the narrow basis of the security of elite interests and the stability of well-entrenched, and often undemocratic, political systems. Does it matter that ASEAN’s appetite for crisis response is limited to such an extent? The answer relates to the range of plausible contingencies, including many that will involve strategic and political considerations. In these terms, ASEAN’s preferred modes of diplomacy will probably be tested at regular intervals. Only with changes to the domestic politics of crucial countries is there any prospect of significant shifts in the approach to crisis response.

Lessons for ASEAN’s global partners

Adapting to volatile and unpredictable conditions is a significant diplomatic challenge worldwide, and recent experience through the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the vulnerabilities of well-established governance structures. The pandemic has undermined confidence in three democratic bulwarks, the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union. With their fragmented decision-making processes, which may have been perceived, historically, as an advantage in challenging and contested policy situations, all three struggled to adequately manage the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, leading to some of the highest death tolls in 2020.

Some authoritarian systems, especially in East and Southeast Asia, appeared to perform more effectively, as did some of the world’s smaller democracies, such as Taiwan, New Zealand and Singapore. Island countries appear to have enjoyed advantages once their borders were closed, which makes sense given the great enmeshment, politically and logistically, across the vast continents of the northern hemisphere. The tragedy of the 2020-21 winter is a striking reminder that even the world’s best prepared and most technologically advanced societies have vulnerabilities when confronted by new threats, like a new virus. Health crises in powerful countries like India and Brazil have also starkly illustrated the profound tragedies of the Covid-19 era.

It appears, however, that the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union have also led the most significant response to the pandemic, primarily through the development and then mass delivery of Covid-19 vaccines. Proactive investments in cutting-edge technology and medical innovations appear to have given them a considerable advantage as their economies re-open and people begin to feel more confident about the future. While there are no certainties, it seems likely that much of ASEAN, and perhaps Myanmar most worryingly of all, will take many years to catch up.

Adjusting to this mixed picture will be a big issue for ASEAN diplomacy beyond the current health crisis as some of its member countries look to reconnect more quickly across borders, and globally. While internal contradictions and deft cultural manoeuvring have sustained the regional body for over fifty years, it now confronts crises, especially in Myanmar, that are not amenable to a strict non-interference approach. Irrespective of its history and membership, ASEAN’s credibility fades whenever it reinforces unpopular governments against the will of ordinary people. Discussions of Myanmar’s recent violent crackdowns are a stark example of diplomatic stalemate and the constraints imposed by the grouping’s “mutual survival pact”.[19] More pointedly, in a region where dictatorship is widely judged the standard form of government, ASEAN’s membership is weighted towards strictly controlled political systems that tolerate, at best, moderate levels of dissent. Why would they intervene to support Myanmar’s democratic opposition?

In practice, where crises are generated along political fault lines, such as in civil wars or popular uprisings, the ASEAN group can offer limited meaningful input. Its internal constraints, which are increasingly reinforced by the diplomatic priorities of the Chinese government, will not shift while dictatorship remains a standard form of Southeast Asian government.[20] Crisis response under these circumstances requires careful attention to interventions that appear neutral, de-politicized and therefore palatable even to the region’s dictators. But such an appearance, even, is often implausible. As such, for ASEAN’s global partners, recognising the boundaries of effective action is the best start when it comes to preparing for ASEAN’s next crisis. The recent track record of inaction on political and strategic matters is a carefully developed element of the region’s diplomatic architecture. Even the extreme examples of Myanmar’s 2021 coup and its 2017 pogrom against the Rohingya have not shifted ASEAN’s entrenched instincts for mutual defence and diplomatic nicety.


References

[1] For an early summary of the policy response see: Djalante, R., Nurhidayah, L., Van Minh, H., Nguyen T.N.P., Mahendradhata, Y., Trias, A., Lassa, J., Miller, M.A. (2021) “COVID-19 and ASEAN responses: Comparative policy analysis”, Progress in Disaster Science, 8:1-12.

[2] The Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, prepared a data-driven global analysis of pandemic response to 13 March 2021, with Thailand ranked 4th, Singapore 14th, and Myanmar 24th (out of 102 countries worldwide). Other ASEAN countries are not ranked due to a lack of data, available online.

[3] It is important to acknowledge the range of successes accumulated by ASEAN, particularly during recent decades as it expanded to accommodate all the regional countries, except Timor Leste. For an insiders’ appraisal of how it has worked, see: Mahbubani, K. and Sng, J. (2017) The ASEAN miracle: A catalyst for peace, Singapore, NUS Press.

[4] Collins, A. (2013) “Norm diffusion and ASEAN’s adoption and adaption of global HIV/AIDS norms”, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 13(3): 369-397.

[5] George, A., Li, C., Lim, J.Z. and Xie, T. (2021) “From SARS to COVID-19: The Evolving Role of China-ASEAN Production Network”, Economic Modelling, 105510; Kliem, F. (2021) “ASEAN and the EU amidst COVID-19: Overcoming the self-fulfilling prophecy of realism”, Asia Europe Journal, 1-19.

[6] Ramcharan, R. (2000) “ASEAN and non-interference: a principle maintained”, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 22(1) 60-88; Jones, L. (2010) “ASEAN’s unchanged melody? The theory and practice of ‘non- interference’ in Southeast Asia”, The Pacific Review, 23(4): 479-502.

[7] For an earlier discussion of some of those powerful historical forces in the Myanmar context, see Farrelly, N. (2013) “Discipline without democracy: military dominance in post-colonial Burma”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 67(3): 312-326.

[8] Thein-Lemelson, S.M. (2021) “‘Politicide’ and the Myanmar coup”, Anthropology Today, 37(2): 3-5.

[9] Kipgen, N. (2021) “The 2020 Myanmar election and the 2021 coup: Deepening democracy or widening division?”, Asian Affairs, 52(1): 1-17.

[10] For a good summary of the divergent international approaches see: Pongsudhirak, T. (2021) “The global reverberations of Myanmar’s coup”, The Strategist, 9 April, available online; also Lee, H.Y. (2021), “Myanmar coup: ASEAN’s quiet diplomacy is more constructive“, The Interpreter, 22 March, available online

[11] See Al Jazeera (2021), “US, Canada and UK impose new sanctions on Myanmar military”, 17 May, available online

[12] Stubbs, R. (2019) “ASEAN sceptics versus ASEAN proponents: evaluating regional institutions”, The Pacific Review, 32(6): 923-950.

[13] Barber, R. and Teitt, S. (2020) “The Rohingya Crisis: Can ASEAN Salvage Its Credibility?”, Survival, 62(5):41-54; also, Trihartono, A. (2018) “Myanmar’s worsening Rohingya crisis: a call for responsibility to protect and ASEAN’s response”, in McLellan, B. (ed) Sustainable Future for Human Security, Singapore, Springer, 3-16.

[14] Mueller, L.M. (2019) “ASEAN centrality under threat–the cases of RCEP and connectivity”, Journal of Contemporary East Asia Studies, 8(2): 177-198.

[15] Tan, S.S. (2017) “Rethinking ‘ASEAN Centrality’ in the regional governance of East Asia”, The Singapore Economic Review, 62(3): 721-740.

[16] For a broader critique of these issues in the context of COVID-19, see: Rüland, J. (2021) “Covid-19 and ASEAN: Strengthening State- centrism, Eroding Inclusiveness, Testing Cohesion”, The International Spectator, 1-21; Simm, G. (2018) “Disaster Response in Southeast Asia: The ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Response and Emergency Management”, Asian Journal of International Law, 8(1): 116-142.

[17] To consider these issues in a useful set of conceptual frameworks, see: Davies, M. (2017) “Important but decentred: ASEAN’s role in the Southeast Asian human rights space”, TRaNS: Trans-Regional and-National Studies of Southeast Asia, 5(1): 99-119.

[18] Duxbury, A. and Tan, H.L. (2019) Can ASEAN Take Human Rights Seriously?, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

[19] A related discussion is: Farrelly, N. (2021) “ASEAN’s mutual survival pact”, Inside Story, 4 May, available online

[20] For a clear assessment of those priorities and how Southeast Asia intersects with, for instance, the Belt and Road Initiative, see: Gabusi, G. (2017) “‘Crossing the river by feeling the gold’: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the financial support to the Belt and Road Initiative”, China & World Economy, 25(5): 23-45.


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