Eight months after the first case of the Covid-19 outbreak was detected in China, the virus has spread to nearly all countries on earth. Southeast Asia was certainly not spared. Despite some success stories in combating the pandemic, most ASEAN states are still struggling to contain the outbreak, with nearly 300,000 cases across the region.
The pandemic has hit some ASEAN economies particularly hard. In the second quarter, Indonesia’s GDP contracted by 5.32 percent, a deeper plunge than expected. The Philippine economy shrank by 16.5 percent in the first half of 2020. The impact has been multidimensional, with questions raised about the immediate and longer-term effects on security, trade and geopolitics. The absence of any robust global response has been striking, despite widespread please from international organizations for international cooperation and a concerted multilateral approach to addressing this global public-health catastrophe.
While a whole-of-world effort has not materialized, the major powers – the US and China – have been offering pandemic assistance to consolidate and bolster their influence in key regions. Southeast Asia, a region of significant strategic significance to both, has been a focal point. Beijing and Washington have increased humanitarian aid to some countries, posing a dilemma for those nations – how to accept assistance and yet maintain ASEAN’s traditional neutrality, encapsulated in the concept of the region’s “centrality” in the Indo-Pacific.
Among ASEAN leaders, the pandemic has added to the mounting pressure they had already been feeling in recent years, particularly as the rivalry between the US and China has heated up. The two powers have been pursuing their respective strategies to strengthen relationships in the region – China with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP); the US with the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP (abandoned by President Donald Trump in 2017), the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, and the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as The Quad. The US and China each pulling on opposite ends of the tug-of-war rope, with ASEAN the center knot, shifting from one side to the other, back and forth.
The emergence of Covid-19 has lent a new urgency to the contest. For instance, China is including ASEAN in its US$2 billion Covid-19 international aid program. Beijing also has donated personal protective equipment and other medical supplies to ASEAN countries and to the organization’s secretariat in Jakarta for distribution as needed. In March, China dispatched testing kits, surgical masks and other items to the Philippines and Indonesia, while it also sent a team of medical experts to Cambodia. A month earlier, the ASEAN and Chinese foreign ministers, meeting in Vientiane, issued a statement on Covid-19 pledging to strengthen cooperation, information exchange, and mutual assistance. A further statement in May called for joint efforts to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on regional and global trade and investment, restore confidence in economies and trade, and pursue opportunities to achieve sustainable long-term growth of international trade and investment.
The US has made its own diplomatic moves. In May, the State Department released a statement on Indo-Pacific cooperation on Covid-19 that underscored the importance of cooperation and information sharing with partners in the region. The US also contributed humanitarian aid to certain ASEAN members. By early May, for example, Washington had released US$57.5 million to help Southeast Asian countries fight the virus, with US$7.3 million allocated to Indonesia. The US aid program included support for case detection and contact tracing.