Think Pieces

Not all my work is made for academic publishing. Sometimes there is an interesting topic to reflect on without the need to turn it into a journal article or even a book. Here you will find what I call Think Pieces on topics that spark my interest and generate thought.

The ASEAN Way:

A Success Story of Regional Responsiveness to Covid-19

Regional integration is, in terms of policymaking, a trade-off between supranationalism (decision-making by regional institutions at a regional level) and intergovernmentalism (decision-making by national governments). The European Union (EU), for example, has adopted an increasingly supranational system while the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is highly intergovernmental. Both regions had quite different reactions to dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. So, which of those two models is more responsive to global crises, such as Covid-19?

Often, regionalism scholars criticize ASEAN’s ineffectiveness and the so-called “ASEAN way”, which emphasizes sovereignty and non-intervention over supranationalism and region-wide policies. This type of policymaking is prominent in all of ASEAN’s policy spheres, including responses to global pandemics. While many seem to voice criticism over this style of policymaking, it seems to have been an appropriate response to the Covid-19 crisis.

In contrast to the European Union, which first tried to respond with unity and open borders, ASEAN countries implemented their own national policies rather than stick as one bloc, and the numbers show a much slower spread in ASEAN than in the EU. Vietnam, where I am currently based, only has a current total of 268 cases (19 April 2020, 8:30am local time) including 201 discharged after successful treatment and the remaining 67 still receiving treatment. The national government has responded very quickly in order to prevent any serious outbreak from happening: it closed borders to China when the virus first emerged, closed borders to Laos and Cambodia when the situation seemed to become more serious, cancelled flights into and out of Vietnam, limited inner-country travels and enforced a mandatory 14-day quarantine on all incoming people. While these actions very much undermine regional solidarity and a region-wide response, they proved successful and the number of cases remain low. Even more so, not a single casualty has been reported.

Normally, I would strongly identify as a proponent of regionalism and regional integration. I am a confident supporter of the EU and see the benefits it has created for its citizens, including me. However, this time, talks and continuous calls for solidarity and open borders have taken a toll on human lives. Only once the virus had gotten out of hand did governments decide to close borders and limit movement. These two ways of responding to the virus made me question continuous criticism addressed at “the ASEAN way”. Indeed, following the ASEAN special summit on 14 April 2020, ASEAN leaders published a joint statement on continuing cooperation and solidarity in the region by exchanging information on prevention experiences, providing medication and equipment, and mitigating the economic impact in the region.

Each model of integration has its own advantages, and, in this case, national responses to curbing the spread of Covid-19, together with intergovernmental coordination and cooperation across the region, seem to have been more successful than aspired regional responses which had to be given up on after all.

If regional organizations want to be successful in the future in terms of regional responsiveness, they will have to create more flexible and adaptive systems that combine mutual support and cooperation in the region with the required level of national sovereignty or sub-national management necessary for rapid reactions.

First published on the RISC-RISE Blog “Responsive Regionalism” in April 2020.