New era of regional cooperation
Hu Zhengyue is former Chinese ambassador to Malaysia.
Zhou Xinyu is a professor of the School of International Relations and Diplomacy at Beijing Foreign Studies University. An earlier version of this op-ed ran on China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has cast doubt on the advancement of globalization. Some say that the international community will be further divided. Others predict that globalization is coming to an end. Such suggestions are irrational as we don’t really have a choice but to strengthen cooperation, whether dealing with the threat of the virus or the challenges of economic downturn. It is thus encouraging that Asian countries are strengthening international cooperation against strong headwinds.
The responses of Asian countries have amazed the world. By mid-April, infected patients accounted for a much smaller percentage in Asia relative to some countries in other regions, indicating more effective containment of the virus. While the mortality rate in major East Asian countries has been below 3 percent — even 1 percent in Singapore — other regions have a fatality rate of over 5 percent or even 10 percent.
Why have Asian countries been more successful in containing the virus? For one thing, Asian governments have taken this dynamic situation very seriously and responded with swift, stringent and effective measures. In addition, nurtured by the culture of putting a premium on collective interest, social discipline and public order, people in Asia have done their respective part to pull through this trying time, including complying with the prevention and control measures introduced by their governments.
Most importantly, the fight against this scourge in Covid-19 is bolstered by the time-honored tradition and fine spirit of solidarity between Asian countries, especially in times of crisis. When severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) broke out in 2003, members of Asean-China, Japan and Korea (Asean Plus Three) came together to cooperate closely, sharing information and helping one another. In the face of the Covid-19 outbreak, Asian countries have intensified their efforts, not just by sharing experiences and learning from one another, but also by trying to maintain trade, keep supply chains intact and donate medical and other emergency supplies needed to fight the virus.
Cooperation and coordination within the Asean Plus Three and Asean-China mechanisms are cases in point. On Feb. 20, the China-Asean Special Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on fighting against Covid-19 exchanged views on strengthening synergy between health, quarantine, transportation and border control agencies of China and Asean and discussed China’s proposal to establish a China-Asean liaison mechanism for public health emergencies as well as China-Asean reserve centers for epidemic control provisions.
In March, China, Japan and the ROK held special video conferences on jointly responding to Covid-19 and agreed to, amongst others, explore a joint prevention and control mechanism to effectively prevent the cross-border spread of the epidemic, seek mutually acceptable solutions to maintain necessary people-to-people exchanges related to economic cooperation and trade and stabilize the industrial chain and supply chain of the three countries.
On April 14, the Asean Plus Three mechanism held a special summit and issued a joint statement outlining 18 goals as well as an action plan for further cooperation during and after the outbreak. These are all great achievements from the perspective of an international observer. It is fair to say that Asia has been a respectful community of shared interest and cooperation in the face of the sudden threat and challenges. For those who are overly pessimistic, the performance of Asian countries speaks volumes.
Over the past decades, Asian countries have played more of a participating role in international institutions and mechanisms. Now with the entire world facing not only a prominent health crisis, but also the prospect of economic recession, the danger of erosion of social cohesion and multilateralism, and the strong need to improve global governance, it is imperative that countries respond resolutely and firmly rise up to these challenges so as to enhance international cooperation. And undoubtedly Asian countries can play a constructive or leading role.
First, the existing regional cooperation mechanisms should be further integrated such as Asean-China-Japan-Korea, China-Asean, China-Japan-Korea and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Second, regional cooperation in Asia has to cope with the political challenges that plague our times, such as populism, nationalism, power politics and great power competition. Therefore, we must seek solutions to wealth inequality, the imbalance in international trade and the global economy, immigration and cultural conflicts while building the widest consensus on the new stage of globalization among different countries, ethnic groups and classes.
Finally, Asian cooperation needs solid support in various fields involving agricultural products, aquatic products, health, financial trade, tourism, cultural industries, science and technology, energy, environment and sustainable development. Flexible and pragmatic policies under a comprehensive functional cooperation mechanism must be employed to deal with problems in development.
Over the past decades, the world has held special expectations for Asia, and most people are impressed with “economic Asia.” Yet, today, Asia represents not only a promising economic powerhouse of the global economy, but a major opportunity for the promotion of human progress with its traditions, wisdom and values, especially in the political and cultural aspects.
At this critical moment in human history, will Asia overcome the challenges and achieve this? Taking a look at the wisdom and spirit shown in fighting against the virus, there’s no doubt about it.