In the post-pandemic conflicts to come, Asia will have to fend for itself

NOTE: First published in the South China Morning Post on 25 May 2020
With the scale and impact of the coronavirus pandemic, we are told to expect a different kind of world when lockdown and quarantine regimes are eventually lifted. But almost certainly, the one aspect of life that will not change is a proclivity for conflict. Rather, existing divides between powers, regions, neighbouring countries and within societies will be exacerbated. New drivers of conflict will emerge.

An analogy could be made with the end of World War II, which gave birth almost immediately to the Cold War struggle between communist states and the Western powers. Thirty more years of war and suffering ensued, especially in Asia.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to anticipate emerging fault lines created by the Covid-19 pandemic and design new frameworks to contain and resolve them to prevent more death and suffering. A global consensus is unlikely, so Asia will have to fend for itself.

We see this already in the global race to find a Covid-19 vaccine. As soon as one emerges, there will be conflict over who gets it first. The French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi was forced to back down after announcing that the United States would have priority access to the vaccine it is developing, because it was first to fund the company’s vaccine-making effort.

The challenges of international distribution, the decision over which segments of our profoundly unequal societies are inoculated, and how the issue of immunity is managed as it becomes a passport to employment and security, are likely to become triggers for protest and even conflict.

Just as the voices demanding sustained lockdowns and restrictions on movement are mainly of those who can afford to work from home, the privileged will demand premium care and attention, while the poor and marginalised will be at the end of the queue. “We have some perfectly effective vaccines on this planet that we have not used effectively,” said a senior official of the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently.
Sadly, the institutional framework and rules designed to ensure equitable protection of global health and security are badly frayed. The WHO has been politicised and defunded, its prescriptions and warnings go unheeded, while the UN Security Council cannot even pass a resolution on a global truce.
In the light of this, Asia needs urgently to consider how to collectively pool resources, learn from each country’s experiences and chart a regional path to the protection of public health and security.

Asia is both where the first outbreak of Covid-19 emerged, and also the region that has arguably the most effective containment efforts. With better-coordinated regional leadership and action, some of the missteps taken in some countries can be addressed and corrected. But first, the existing modes of regional cooperation and decision-making need to be adjusted, and the barriers to effective action must be lowered.

 Formal summit-level meetings have not worked out well among Asian leaders relying on video conferencing. Diplomacy and decision-making at the official level have slowed down. There should be more attention paid to actions taken at the grassroots level.

Despite a long history of having authoritarian governments, local communities, NGOs and individuals in the region have risen to the challenge of helping one another. While governments fumbled and fiddled over balancing public health with economic security, Malaysians made mass petitions urging the government to maintain lockdowns, while Indonesian leaders in towns and villages enforced local measures to protect their communities as the central government issued confusing messages. In Thailand, women’s groups and teams of doctors led the way in shaping medical advice and mobilising food supplies.

 Scale up this basic common-sense civility and you could have humanitarian organisations, charities and health foundations coming together at a regional level to pool data, share experiences, and establish a strategy for rolling out vaccines and preventive safeguards that are tailored to regional needs.

Questions such as how to ensure that the legions of migrant workers are included in vaccine programmes, even if they are undocumented or illegal, or the delivery of life-saving drugs to areas of conflict will require more effective regional cooperation as many of the region’s most vulnerable people live along contested or remote border areas.

With the blessing of the 10 Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member states supported by China, India, Japanand South Korea, one possible configuration could include Asean Regional Forum members such as Australia, New Zealandand even North Korea. A broader multi-state configuration is needed to ensure that countries like Bangladesh, which hosts close to a million Rohingya refugees, can be sure of a seat at the table. The ad hoc group model deployed to manage people-smuggling in the region, co-chaired by Indonesia and Australia and known as the Bali Process, might be one option.

A more inclusive regional approach would give China, which has been widely criticised for being defensive about the coronavirus pandemic, an opportunity to show regional leadership and responsibility.

Popular resentment towards China has erupted in countries such as Thailand, where the economy relied heavily on Chinese tourists and business before Covid-19 closed its borders. That this sentiment is being expressed in societies in the neighbourhood should be a worry for Beijing and prompt a more transparent and softer diplomatic approach.

Removing the increasingly toxic geopolitical rivalry between the US and China from the regional equation might coax Beijing into a less reflexively defensive and at times aggressive stance. This is not the time for assertive manoeuvres in the South China Sea and confrontation between the US and Chinese navies – countries in the region want the US and China to work together, not against each other at the expense of other nations.

To be sure, finding the right regional approach will be challenging. The effectiveness of ad hoc groups like the Bali Process has been hampered by resistance from states which feel pressured. By and large, Asian governments have been allergic to civil society and grassroots activism. But something has to give.

The Covid-19 pandemic is having an immediate and catastrophic impact on everyone’s lives. Visions of dystopia like that crafted by Asian-American writer Chang Rae-lee in his 2014 novel On Such a Full Sea imagined a wrecked world divided between the privileged living in protected communities, and the rest of society eking out a precarious existence in an anarchic wilderness bereft of life-saving technology.

Is that the future we want? If so, we will be condemned to perpetual conflict and insecurity.

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Dr Michael Vatikiotis, Asia Regional Director of the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, is a private diplomat/peace negotiator who has worked in Southeast Asia for the past thirty-five years. Formerly a journalist with the BBC, he then became chief editor of the "Far Eastern Economic Review". His non-fiction books include Indonesian Politics under Suharto: The Rise and Fall of the New Order (Routledge) and Political Change in Southeast Asia: Trimming the Banyan Tree (Routledge). His latest, Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, is published by W&N/Hachette and translated most recently into Chinese. He published "The Spice Garden" a novel set in Eastern Indonesia in 2004; "The Painter of Lost Souls" is a novel set in Central Java published in 2012. Fluent in Thai and the Indonesian languages, Vatikiotis lives in Singapore.

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