COVID-19 Opportunities for Asian Inter- and Intra-Regional Integration

Author: Ravi Prakash Vyas

Previously published at Global Campus Preparedness

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed shortcomings that countries are struggling to overcome. Rather than looking to individual countries to lead the world out of crisis or expecting them to fight it alone, regional inter-governmental organisations must come together to share resources and ideas and find solutions for the crisis in ways that are both timely and future-proofed.

Examples of regional organisations responding to the COVID-19 crisis
It is apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead the world into an economic crisis. On 9 April, European Union (EU) finance ministers agreed on a coronavirus financial support package worth half a trillion euros; meanwhile, the European Central Bank is buying 750 billion euros in additional bonds to help its members provide liquidity and safeguard public debt. The EU has also announced a 15 billion euro ‘Team Europe’ package for the fight against the pandemic, which will support the most vulnerable countries in the world. The steps taken by the EU and the gradual reopening of its economy offer a lead, serving as stimulants for economic stability in other regions as well.

Encouragingly, prospects for improved regional cooperation are evident in the COVID-19 response to date. An important first step was a joint EU and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) video conference on 20 March, which discussed measures to combat COVID-19 and to increase future trade and investment. In April, there was a special summit of ASEAN countries, which also included China, Japan and South Korea. This was another critical step in the integration of regional mechanisms and countries working together, with discussions that focused on COVID-19 measures and identifying technical and medical support needs.

In a similar vein, the African Union (AU) has placed a clear emphasis on the need for solidarity. Moussa Faki Mahamat, the Chairperson of the AU Commission, has said that the pandemic should ‘serve as a hymn, an anthem for multilateralism and solidarity’. In line with this, the AU has coordinated efforts around transparent public-information dissemination regarding the pandemic in its member states.

Further, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which has been criticised as an ineffective organisation due to bilateral disputes among its member states, has shown leadership by establishing a COVID-19 emergency fund of $18.5 million made up of voluntary contributions from its members.

The COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity for regional organisations
The interdependence of the world shown by this pandemic is a clear indication that regional organisations need to rejuvenate or establish their mechanisms for member states. In Asia, there has been criticism of both ASEAN’s lack of concerted response at the beginning of the crisis and SAARC’s lack of efficiency. Both organisations have continued to make efforts: what is needed is action and implementation on agreed efforts and plans.

Growing disputes between the world’s leading economies in the world provide a perfect setting for regional organisations to establish coordinated economic integration efforts, looking beyond the IMF and World Bank for fiscal stimulus packages. Asian regional organisations and mechanisms can take this opportunity to develop a coordinated economic integration effort. Small concentrated efforts by states to fight the pandemic are the ideal opportunity for the long-term strengthening of regional collaboration and connectivity in the Asian region. They also provide an opportunity for countries to show renewed interest and faith in regional organisations for a shared future.

More generally, the COVID-19 pandemic provides opportunities for laying down new governance models. The efforts, albeit moderate, by countries like China and Singapore during the pandemic could be taken as a window for regional cooperation within Asia. There needs to be a regional dialogue between ASEAN and SAARC to identify joint cooperation mechanisms. Moreover, the regional organisations in Asia can play a role not only by dealing with issues in their own region but also having impactful interregional collaboration in the recovery of the world in the current or any future crisis.

This post is just a beginning point: there needs to be a much larger discussion of the possibilities and the modalities through which regional organisations can play a more significant role in global governance in the future, keeping in mind the crisis at hand which knows no boundary. Regional organisations have the opportunity to develop structures of cooperation and aid with private individuals, companies and developmental agencies to seek regional fund mobilisation leading to concerted and effective implementation of resources in the region through collaboration.

Looking in particular at Asia: in this region, we need to reflect within our diversity and identify our priorities for the common good and humanity. The world we envision post-COVID-19 should be a world of equality and human rights first. That can only happen if we leave behind our pseudo – nationalism and foster engagement through regional organisations. We need to foster sustainable development and growth with a shared identity and future for us.

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