The online informal meeting of ASEAN is scheduled to take place on April 14 to discuss ways and means to collaborate jointly to fight against the deaths due to COVID 19 across the ASEAN region, and work out a plan of action so as to sustain the ASEAN regional growth, protect jobs, provide employment and food to the 650 million population in different southeast Asian countries. Further, aggravated tensions in South China Sea with China drowning Vietnamese fishing boat, and threatening Filipino fishermen have seen strong words from US state department condemning Chinese confrontational tactics. Vietnam, is the chair of ASEAN at this critical juncture and would have to provide solutions through visionary leadership to be accounted as a strong stakeholder in regional peace and security.
Raising concerned with regard to Chinese tactics, US state department categorically stated, “seriously concerned by reports of the PRC’s sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.” Earlier on April 2, Chinese coastguard ship4301 drowned Vietnamese fishing boat No. QNg 90617 TS. China has also increase its activities in Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef. It has conducted maritime surveillance sorties with its maritime aircrafts and has further accumulated new weapons in the reclaimed islands. In a show of solidarity and apparent castigation of Chinese moves, Philippines has stated that there are serious ‘trust’ issues with China, and it has been involved in bullying and drowning boats of other SCS claimant countries in the past. Philippines has also raised the issue that when the world is facing crisis at the time of COVID 19 , China is seriously jeopardizing peace and tranquility in SCS even when the draft COC is under deliberations. Instead of pushing for equal right for all claimant states, China is showing brute power to thwart other claimants and curb the fishing space of the coastal communities living in Philippines and Vietnam, and other ASEAN nations including Indonesia even in their legitimate EEZ. The show of solidarity with ASEAN chair would mean that China might get a serious message on the issue during the delayed ASEAN summit meeting.
While SCS issue would be raised during the ASEAN meetings, there would be other issues which would need attention of the ASEAN chair and other member nations. This includes a mid-term review draft towards plan for the implementation of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025. In terms of security, ASEAN countries have to address issues related to economic, social and political security. Also health security, human migration and trafficking would be addressed on a serious note while looking at the magnitude of the COVID 19 crisis. The Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) Work Plan III (2016-2020), would require concerted approach from ASEAN, as only 19 out of 26 actions (73.1 per cent) were fulfilled. Vietnam must seek cooperation among all ASEAN member states to institutionalize drug and medical research programmes, and create a network of medical institutions (something like ISIS network in the case of security) which can work on medicines and pandemic research. ASEAN would also have to work on joint missions and medical corps which can help each other during times of crisis as the large population in ASEAN region makes it vulnerable to pathogens and germs because of it being connected to other Asian countries which are highly populated. The need is therefore to institute a regional disaster management centre which can act as coordination centre at times of crises.
In the wake of COVID 19, Vietnam would have to raise the issue of suspending visa free travel and suspend business visa for ASEAN member nations till the pandemic is contained or a lifesaving drug/ vaccine is found. This must get the approval of all ASEAN members and there is a need for consensus on this. The COVID 19 has also raised the possibility of terrorist using the pathogens for a large scale latent attack in shopping malls or highly populated areas such as popular events and religious congregations. ASEAN needs to outline and plan of action for containing the pandemic spread. It needs strict timelines for compliance and developing standard operating procedures. ASEAN earlier has done commendable job in developing regional terrorism database and cyber security initiatives.
For Vietnam, it needs to put into ASEAN agenda the issue of review of Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC).Vietnam should also raise the issue of developing online learning and data exchange platforms for educating health, sanitation and security agencies. Marine pollution, recurrent haze and climate change initiatives must be raised to reflect unanimity across Southeast Asia and synergize it with the global efforts.
The ASEAN charter of 2007 needs further review in evolving circumstances. The ASEAN Charter need to keep in sync with the ASEAN community objectives and synchronize it with the politico-security, economic and socio-cultural objectives. It is intuitive that ASEAN charter and community objectives would not be able to keep in sync with each other. The ASEAN Secretariat functioning need more intense outcome based orientation and few sub-committees can be instituted in which dialogue partners can be invited for better coordination and financial support.
Dialogue partner countries have been highlighting regional security issues and the need for participative approach. Dialogue partners can also be asked to provide a strong statement reinforcing peace and tranquility, and commitment towards ASEAN centrality. ASEAN chairman statements has been mellowed towards security issues which leads to deficit in action and support among ASEAN nations. This bottleneck must be overcome under any circumstances. Vietnam must highlight issues and serious constraints that the Southeast Asia would face in the aftermath of COVID19 when protectionism and stringent phytosanitary and sanitary regulations would come in play in the areas of health, trade, and tourism. ASEAN vision under Vietnam also need to work diligently on the green technologies and effective models of development for underdeveloped regions. Vietnam has become ASEAN chair at the time of COVID 19, and the expectations have been high in terms of deliverables and future plan of action.