Relative to India, North America, and the European Union, Southeast Asian countries have managed to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. Do you think that the relatively low official number of deaths from COVID-19 in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand are the result of poor data or actual success in controlling the spread of Covid-19?
The evidence appears to show that Southeast Asia did do relatively well in containing the virus in 2020. If the numbers had been grossly exaggerated, we would have known. However, 2021 brings new challenges. Of course, success came at a huge economic cost, and some countries have been criticized for having very strict lockdowns.
Most ASEAN members, with the notable exception of Singapore, have less than 10% of their populations vaccinated. How would you rate the region’s success in securing and administering vaccines relative to other regions?
I have a couple thoughts about this. There are so many legitimate concerns about vaccine inequality globally speaking. We have over 50% of all vaccines produced going to developed countries despite their smaller populations. In the developing world its quite disparate in terms of vaccination progress. In Southeast Asia we have inequalities within the region. As you mentioned, counties like Singapore are doing far better than Cambodia and Myanmar.
I would add, however, that there are challenges that we can also highlight beyond the availability of vaccines. The logistics matter in terms of actual vaccination rates. In smaller countries they’ve have an easier time protecting their populations. Geographically larger, decentralized, and populous countries are disadvantaged in distributing vaccines. Indonesia, for example, has done well in acquiring vaccines, but is much weaker in terms of being able to deliver those vaccines. The Philippines has the same problem as Indonesia. These are archipelago states and that makes it tough.
There are questions also of vaccine hesitancy. There are a variety of reasons for that, some of which are similar to those in the United States. There is some hesitancy in Southeast Asia toward China’s Sinovac vaccine and there are also questions about the new mRNA vaccines and uncertainties about AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which has had the widest global distribution.
A few weeks ago, China hosed talks with ASEAN officials in Chongqing to discuss vaccine passport agreements. Is this a signal that China’s handling of the crisis has allowed its reputation to emerge from the pandemic more favorably compared to the United States?
We can talk broadly about how China has engaged Southeast states during the pandemic. I’m not sure that the way China handled Covid, or the way it engaged with Southeast Asia during the pandemic, necessarily helped its reputation, but it didn’t hurt. I think there was more of a danger that the pandemic could have hurt China very deeply, but it did not. Its engagement with Southeast Asian states instead has maintained the status quo. In general, China’s assistance has been pretty good. It offered early assistance; it was an early supporter of the WHO’s efforts. It sent assistance in terms of medical supplies, equipment, medical teams, and provided training. It sent some form of assistance to every Southeast Asian state, including the most developed ones. Southeast Asia also received a good percentage of China’s donated vaccines. It also buys quite a bit of China’s vaccines as a percentage of global purchases. Again, China’s engagement has been pretty good and the passport is just another indication of that. China’s challenges are elsewhere. Had they handled it poorly it would have exacerbated all those other concerns, which won’t be going away any time soon.
Economic cooperation between China and ASEAN has enjoyed strong momentum since the signing of the RCEP in 2020. In what ways do you think ASEAN and China can continue to deepen their economic ties? What does this mean for the U.S.?
The RCEP is indicative of a range of economic activities that have been happening in Asia more generally, but particularly in Southeast Asia. There remains great interest in regional cooperation, which is reflective of economic uncertainties with the global economy and US economic policies. It is reflective also of the heightened interdependence between China and Southeast Asia states and within Asia more broadly. RCEP is indicative of other economic trends, which are likely to continue. I do not see them dissipating. Under current conditions they will only grow more, actually.
It’s no surprise that RCEP negotiations regained momentum at a time when US trade relations were the most uncertain. That was not a coincidence. Even though the Trump administration was associated with a lot of this uncertainty, there remains economic uncertainty with respect to US trade policies connected to our domestic politics. RCEP is also a good example of how these uncertainties exist also in relations between China and Southeast Asia. This makes Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand important too. While SE Asian states will continue to do business with China bilaterally and through the ASEAN-China framework, they will also be very much connected with other states around the world.
ASEAN provided a valuable multilateral forum for Southeast Asian nations to cooperate during the pandemic. At the same time, ASEAN continues to face internal divides over maritime border disputes and developments in Burma. Will ASEAN be able to overcome these internal divisions?
ASEAN will not easily overcome these challenges. In fact, these divisions are likely to remain with ASEAN for a while. The better question may be will ASEAN be able to manage these divisions. The reason that these divisions are likely to remain with ASEAN is because there is greater ASEAN diversity than there used to be. If you look at several measures, the organization has diverged over the decades in terms of economic development, political systems, and geopolitical orientation. It’s also worth noting that most of these divisions emerge mainly along maritime and mainland lines. Not entirely, but mostly. So, bridging those divides makes it much more challenging for an organization that works through consensus. These divisions are likely to remain, but ASEAN as an organization has always operated such that it respects the differences amongst its members. That’s another reason why it is likely to remain. There has always been this debate in ASEAN since the beginning and at every stage of its operation. ASEAN tends to manage conflict, but it will be an ongoing, evolving trial-and-error process. They have developed mechanisms over time to facilitate when there isn’t agreement. There will be strong motivations to achieve consensus. Regime interests continue to sustain the efforts to work through division.
The challenge with the current Myanmar crisis is much more difficult, however. Myanmar is one of ASEAN’s own members and has a voice. As a member of the organization, Myanmar affects how ASEAN can interact with it. It is a particularly difficult question.
Many Southeast Asian states were troubled by the unilateral and confrontational diplomatic style of the Trump administration. In your view, did his presidency create long-term damage to America’s reputation in the region and will the Biden administration’s multilateral approach be enough to move beyond the damage created by the previous administration?
First of all, the US remains very welcome in much of Southeast Asia. This isn’t just because of China-related politics. One of the things the US has benefited from, despite its electoral uncertainty and changes in leadership, is that it enjoys considerable goodwill especially in maritime Southeast Asia. As a result, it gets forgiven a lot. That being said, the Trump administration did do damage to US credibility, which is a reputational question, mostly by accentuating concerns about US commitments and more generally, its attention to Southeast Asia that were already there. These concerns were not distinct to the Trump administration; his administration just happened to be the most extreme and so it damaged US credibility by emphasizing these issues. It pulled out of agreements that states spent years negotiating. Those in the TPP, for example, spent years bending to US demands only for the US to pull out. What will happen next time? Those are the questions that ASEAN states must ask because they’ve also made national sacrifices that they must justify to their constituents. So that’s a real concern, and given the US domestic political situation and changing views on trade in the US, the Trump administration may only have been the start. Actually Southeast Asia, I would argue, has had concerns about US economic commitments and trade policies for decades now. They do rise and fall, so they are not entirely unfamiliar. However, in my view, it will be difficult to recover from this specific fall in trust.
Official Website of West Sumatra Indonesia’s Province, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons