China and 10 Southeast Asian countries are linking up to fight a deadly coronavirus outbreak that’s threatening tourism and trade ties.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a negotiating bloc with members that dispute Chinese maritime sovereignty claims and worry about the pace of Chinese investment abroad, signed a healthcare resolution with China February 20. The two sides agreed to accelerate information exchanges, combat any fake virus-related news and support small businesses that are hobbled by the outbreak.
China and ASEAN are “major tourist destinations” for each other with annual travel exceeding 65 million visits, the bloc said in a statement. China is also ASEAN’s largest trading partner. ASEAN is the second largest trading partner of China.
“This is a good occasion to promote solidarity among countries in the region,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.
“It’s unfortunate that it would have to take a virus to bring ASEAN and China together," he said, but "that’s a good pause for the politics as usual in the region.”
The coronavirus discovered in December in the central Chinese city Wuhan is spreading world wide.
China is the hardest hit, but ASEAN nations report smaller caseloads, especially in Singapore. The outbreak has led to the cancellation of thousands of flights, flattening tourism in parts of Southeast Asia that depend on foreign travel. Work stoppages in China this month also weakened Chinese manufacturing supply links in Southeast Asia.
Foreign ministers from China and the Southeast Asian countries resolved at the February 20 meeting in Laos to step up sharing of information and best practices “in a timely manner” while pressing for common people to get accurate information rather than “fake news,” the parties said in a statement.
Any discovery in treating the disease, formally called COVID-19, should be shared, the statement adds. “If anything, I think Singapore of course with its medical advances and so on would be in a better position, but of course Singapore itself is also afflicted with the outbreak,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
They further agreed to rely more on cross-border training to stop any new disease threats. Small companies hurt by business losses caused by the outbreak will get ASEAN-China help in doing internet promotions, the resolution says. People are going out less often than usual in much of Asia to avoid catching the disease but still place orders online.
ASEAN and China will add a third formal health forum to their meeting calendar this year in view of the outbreak, the statement says.
“Hopefully there’s a practical lesson to be learned, which is that China and ASEAN can work out some solutions on communication, control, quarantine standards for the next virus erupts…whatever it is,” Araral said.
Dependent but not unified
The ASEAN region that covers a total population of about 630 million depends on tourism from China, with countries such as Vietnam reporting steady increases in arrivals over the past few years. China exports electronics to Southeast Asia, where foreign-invested factories buy Chinese raw materials and send finished products back to the Chinese market.
Malaysia, to name just one example, is keen to “restore” its tourism industry, said Oh, a Malaysian national. From January to September 2019, China was Malaysia's third biggest source of foreign tourists with 2.41 million arrivals after Singapore and Indonesia, the New Straits Times website says.
Before the outbreak, encounters between China and ASEAN this year were expected to be tense.
Vietnam is current chair of the bloc and leaders in Hanoi particularly resent Beijing’s maritime expansion.
ASEAN is pressing China for a joint code of conduct that would help prevent mishaps in the South China Sea where Beijing’s occupation of contested islets riles association members Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. Those four countries have long disputed China’s maritime claims. China had resisted the code before a fresh agreement in 2017 to keep talking.
In Malaysia, the Philippines and Myanmar, people worry separately whether Chinese infrastructure investment will land their countries in debt or force them to accept workers from China instead of employing locals. “
I think China also wants to be seen as cooperative and they want to come out to ASEAN that they can cope and they will recover,” said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
Joint work with China could pull Southeast Asian countries together too, Chalermpalanupap added. Although the regional economy is suffering, he said, countries within ASEAN “have different responses” to the virus, which “makes us look not so nice.”
Association member Cambodia, for example, saw its prime minister travel to Beijing February 5 to appeal for economic support. In contrast, on January 31 Singapore banned travel from China.