The Covid19 outbreak poses a serious threat to Southeast Asia and its bloc, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Southeast Asia has seen a rapid increase in the number of cases since the virus was first detected in Wuhan. The combined total stands at more than 160,000 cases and 4,500 deaths. Majority of the cases have been reported in Singapore and Indonesia, whereas other member nations have fewer Covid-19 cases. This discrepancy in the reported counts and relatively low numbers in other countries has been attributed to under-reporting and minimum testing in some member nations. Undeniably, the scale of the pandemic is nevertheless enormous and has seriously impacted the key sectors of travel and tourism, business operations and supply chains, retail, employment and livelihood due to the economic downturn caused by regional containment measures. To mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic, ASEAN member nations have sought to deal with the pandemic in a united way.
ASEAN and its partners have made efforts to address the pandemic at the multilateral level. The annual ASEAN Summit took place on June 26, which addressed the importance for member states to show unity and to form a regional fund to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ASEAN Covid-19 response fund is going to help member states acquire crucial medical equipment such as ventilators and PPE kits. Thailand for instance, pledged to contribute $100,000 and ASEAN partners such as Japan, China and South Korea are expected to announce their contributions after the summit.
Although Southeast Asian leaders have taken this initiative, a fund won’t be enough. All member nations are keen to develop a united mechanism to conduct extensive testing and tracing with most member nations currently dealing with community transmission of the virus. The possibility of such rampant transmission in the low-income nations would weaken their already fragile health and economic systems. Hence, there needs to be a focus on the least-developed nations of Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar where governments “are not equipped to fight the disease on their own, especially if the virus becomes widespread”.
The economic toll of Covid-19 may be deeper and long-lasting depending upon how the pandemic unfolds. The uncertainty surrounding the spread and containment of the virus has created a significant slowdown in all economies and has significantly impacted ASEAN’s leading 3 — Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. They are now facing one of their most severe recessions as well. Singapore and Thailand’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will shrink by 7 per cent and 8 per cent this year respectively and Indonesia will experience its slowest growth rate since 2001. This concerted effort by the ASEAN member states however, stands under threat by China’s pursuit of its strategic objectives.
As ASEAN members have been preoccupied with the Covid-19 pandemic, China has continued to push its strategic objectives in the South China Sea. Beijing claims "majority of the South China Sea and deems it to be an inalienable part of its territory". Moreover, "exercising full sovereignty over the area is a core part of President Xi Jinping’s China Dream.” In line with this aim, China recently announced administrative jurisdictions over parts of two disputed island archipelagos — the Parcel and Spratly, in an attempt to strengthen its claims in the South China Sea. Beijing also issued new names for 25 island reefs and 55 undersea entities in the South China Sea in a bid to “reaffirm” its sovereignty in the region.
China has also increased patrols and naval exercises in the disputed area. Chinese authorities claim that they are conducting normal activities under Chinese jurisdiction but neighboring nations have accused China of harassing those who attempt to explore for resources in waters that have overlapping Chinese claims. For instance, Malaysian and Chinese vessels have been locked in a high-stakes standoff since a Malaysian drilling ship was searching for resources in waters also claimed by the Chinese. Similarly, after a Chinese coast guard ship sank a boat carrying eight Vietnamese fishermen, protests against the Chinese took place, which accused China of violating Vietnam’s sovereignty. The recent ASEAN summit also pointed out tensions in the South China Sea and called for peaceful resolution, especially now when nations are scrambling to deal with the pandemic.
Chinese actions have also received sharp criticism from the US and Australia. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of "exploiting its neighbouring countries and taking advantage of the world’s focus on the Covid-19 pandemic to push its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea." Pompeo’s statement emphasised Beijing’s effort to push the envelope in the South China Sea where Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Philippines also have overlapping claims. Australian Foreign minister Marise Payne condemned China’s actions and said that it is "vital all countries ease tensions so they can focus on combating Covid-19.”
While the ASEAN bloc tried to show unity in the recent summit, the long-standing dispute regarding the South China Sea serves a counterintuitive purpose. Given China’s relative advantage as a major trading nation for most ASEAN member states — Vietnam on top with trade of $98 billion, followed by Singapore and Malaysia at $55 billion and $52.5 billion respectively, envisioning a cohesive front is far-fetched.
Moreover, China has decided to include ASEAN in a 2 billion-dollar Covid-19 aid package, making it even more complicated. It will take meticulous multilateral talks to convince Beijing to agree on a regulated solution, at a time when nations are increasingly looking inward — both from the standpoint of combatting the pandemic and safeguarding their economies from shocks of greater interdependence.
Additionally, ASEAN’s lack of ability to lead on the South China Sea dispute is due to its member nations, who "show prickly nationalism but are unwilling to delegate enough power for the organisation to take the driver’s seat". Moreover, there are political fissures dampening a united front. For instance, Cambodia and Laos rely heavily on China on the international stage and have always decided to stay out of the ongoing maritime disputes. Singapore has maintained a neutral role in the dispute due to its active infrastructure projects in China. This only plays into Beijing’s hands as it would much rather deal individually with the five nations with which it has disputes, rather than confronting the ASEAN as a whole. In bilateral negotiations, owing to its relative heft as the second largest economy, China stands at an advantage.
For instance, the landmark decision on the Philippines and China dispute over the South China Sea in 2016 was the very first time an international tribunal had ruled on the claims in the region. The Philippines had filed a "complaint under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that sets out rules for the use of the world’s oceans", a treaty that both Philippines and China are signatories to. The tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines and even declared that there was “no legal basis for the nine- dash line” — the cornerstone argument for China’s claims. Following this, China took bilateral action. Months after the verdict, China and the Philippines signed a controversial offshore oil and gas deal, which spurred the Philippines to reject the tribunal’s verdict. A joint exploration deal looked like a win-win situation for both nations but it mostly benefited China whilst relinquishing Philippines sovereignty in the west Philippine Sea. Essentially, with bilateral inducements, China managed to reverse the Philippines’ victory.
Hence, at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic may coax unity amongst regional nations, China via its actions in the South China Sea is attempting to keep ASEAN solidarity under pressure.
The author is a Research Intern at ORF Mumbai
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