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Author: Kaewkamol Pitakdumrongkit, RSIS

2021 marked continued efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to address the problems emerging from COVID-19 and pursue post-pandemic recovery. Some of the year’s deliverables were noteworthy, including the Strategic and Holistic Initiative to Link ASEAN Responses to Emergencies and Disasters (ASEAN SHIELD) announced in the Bandar Seri Begawan Declaration in June 2021.

Cutting across the three pillars of the ASEAN Community (Political-Security, Economic and Socio-Cultural), ASEAN SHIELD outlined a holistic approach to responding to emergencies and disasters. A ‘Post-COVID-19 Recovery Plan for ASEAN Tourism’ is also being devised to help the region safely reopen the tourism sector, while also undergirding the implementation of existing frameworks like the ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan 2016–2025.

The Plan helps ASEAN pursue economic integration as part of the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework — itself a facet of the organisation’s ‘community-wide exit strategy’ from the pandemic. Another deliverable was the Consolidated Strategy on the Fourth Industrial Revolution for ASEAN, a strategy that strives to boost regional capacities in artificial intelligence and supply chains.

The Myanmar crisis shocked ASEAN after the Tatmadaw putsch ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government on 1 February 2021. The ongoing civilian protests, alongside armed clashes between the junta and anti-junta militia, resulted in thousands of casualties and over 8000 state imprisonments.

While the Five-Point Consensus was reached at the Special ASEAN Summit in April 2021, Min Aung Hlaing’s regime has made little progress implementing it. At the Emergency ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in October 2021, ASEAN subsequently made the bold decision to invite only non-political representatives from Myanmar to attend the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits and related events.

Looking ahead, key challenges await ASEAN in 2022. The first one concerns the post-pandemic recovery. The rise of Omicron is forcing member states to more quickly implement regional initiatives such as the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund — the vehicle through which ASEAN plans to distribute vaccines to the ASEAN population in the first and second quarters of 2022. But the vaccine rollout must be accelerated because, beyond fighting infections, timely inoculation will reduce the probability of lockdowns and workforce quarantines, both of which could disrupt supply chains and suppress regional growth.

The uncertainties triggered by Omicron will likely complicate ASEAN’s reopening and recovery. Singapore cancelled new ticket sales for inbound trips under its Vaccinated Travel Lanes from December 2021 to January 2022, and Thailand reimposed its quarantine requirements for international visitors in December 2021. At the time of writing, some quarantine-free travel has resumed but with reduced capacity. Going forward, with the situation still in flux, some states will probably adopt more of a ‘safety first’ approach than others, implying uneven reopening speeds that could make the operationalisation of region-wide programs, such as the Post-COVID-19 Recovery Plan for ASEAN Tourism, more daunting.

The rising number of COVID-19 patients may also force Southeast Asian governments into trade protectionism. Indeed, the onset of the pandemic in early 2020 saw bans and restrictions on personal protective equipment and essential product exports, and the rising number of cases may see such trends re-emerge.

Another challenge facing ASEAN is how to best navigate US–China strategic competition, a contest that is likely to be more confrontational in 2022. Washington’s diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics will, among other moves, further sour bilateral relations and intensify the US–China trade and technology war. As far as ASEAN countries are concerned, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) could, at least on the economic front, cushion member states from the negative impacts of this competition.

RCEP’s Rules of Origin allow ASEAN nations to source up to 60 per cent (in value-added terms) of parts for goods from non-RCEP economies in order to sell those goods duty-free within the bloc. This gives states ample room to diversify their supply chains with third-party states to effectively hedge against the uncertainties caused by Sino–US rivalry.

Myanmar will feature high on ASEAN’s agenda in 2022. The Cambodian chair appointed its Foreign Minister as the new special envoy tasked to ensure the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus, provide humanitarian assistance, and facilitate dialogue among stakeholders. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to the country was welcomed by some observers who regarded the move as an attempt to form a basis for dialogue.

Still, other analysts contend that Hun Sen did not meet Aung San Suu Kyi, triggering a question of whether the chair is able to engage stakeholders from both sides. While the Myanmar issue may unfold in any number of ways, ASEAN’s handling of this crisis is crucial to its existence and role as a regional organisation.

Throughout its history, ASEAN has weathered several crises and proven that, despite its differences, members are able to collectively foster regional peace. Whether it will be able to do so again in 2022 remains an open question.

Kaewkamol Pitakdumrongkit is Head and Assistant Professor at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2021 in review and the year ahead.

The post Recapping ASEAN’s year of pandemic recovery and political challenges first appeared on News JU.

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