Commentary / Japan | CC

Outbreak offers chance to boost cooperation

by Stephen R. Nagy

The coronavirus outbreak in China and subsequent negative cascade of effects on China, the region and the world is a bellwether of the challenges to come if ways are not found to strengthen international cooperation.

Here is where Japan and China may be able to build a crosswalk between each other’s signature initiatives, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision (FOIP) and the Belt and Road initiative (BRI).

Both initiatives focus on infrastructure and connectivity. The FOIP distinguishes itself from the BRI by characterizing its infrastructure and connectivity activities as being high in quality, fiscally transparent, environmentally friendly and geopolitically neutral. The FOIP includes a heavy emphasis on promoting trade, ASEAN centrality, inclusivity (open to China) and a strong focus on rules-based behavior in the maritime domain.

The BRI, in contrast, is an expansive geo-economic strategy to build infrastructure in participating countries to fuel development and economic integration into a China-centred economic hierarchy. With its five land corridors throughout the Eurasian continent, a maritime corridor through India’s backyard and a digital corridor, China’s BRI has the potential to transform regional integration away from an ASEAN-centered integration to an exclusive, China-centered integration complete with its own closed-digital economy.

What is missing from both initiatives is a focus on building capacities to deal with transnational disease outbreaks such as the COVID-19 coronavirus, which could include hospitals and medical clinics, health care training for emerging states throughout the Indo-Pacific, and cooperation in stockpiling medicines, vaccines, surgical masks, alcohol and other emergency equipment to quickly stem the spread of a transnational disease.

Usually these activities fall under the category of so-called nontraditional security issues, those issues that are transnational in nature, that are not manageable unilaterally and where the military is not a solution to dealing with the emergency at hand.

Here, the COVID-19 outbreak in China is an opportunity to migrate away from a competitive relationship to one that can provide badly needed public goods to the Indo-Pacific region. It should include other Indo-Pacific stakeholders as well such as India, the United States, Australia, Canada and the European Union.

We already have institutions that emerged in the wake of a crisis to meet regional needs, such as the Chiang Mai Initiative, which was founded after the Asian financial crisis of 1997. It serves as a regional financial safety net to address the short-term liquidity difficulties in the region and to supplement the existing international financial arrangements.

Japan, along with its Indo-Pacific partners and China, should establish a similar initiative to deal with transnational health issues such as COVID-19, SARS, MERS and bird flu, and the highly probably transnational security issues that will result from climate change.

Key pillars of any Indo-Pacific emergency response initiative would necessary include pre-, during and post-health crisis cooperation.

Pre-crisis cooperation should be threefold. First, link infrastructure and connectivity projects that are already in existence or on the table to required shared health and safety norms to ensure that when a crisis emerges, stakeholders can seamlessly cooperate to get control of the health crisis.

Second, stockpile medical equipment, medicine, vaccinations and other essentials, and create mechanisms to transport those needed items to areas effected by an outbreak like coronavirus. Key hubs would need to be identified to ensure that resources are accessible and can be deployed within a 24- to 48-hour period.

Third, training and education should be provided to health professionals and educators alike to ensure that officials have the right information and knowledge as to what are the best approaches to mitigating the spread of an infectious disease or other crises.

Reflecting on the current events unfolding in Wuhan and China at large, organized multinational relief efforts should have already been delivered to the most needy areas, while officials in China should have immediately found ways to get international aid to those citizens who require it.

Japan’s more constructive response to international aid in the wake of the March 2011 tsunami and Fukushima No. 1 nuclear accident compared with the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake may be instructive to study.

While preparation for a crisis is crucial, what happens during a crisis is equally if not more important. In a hypothetical Indo-Pacific emergency response initiative, information on the virus and teams on the ground to identify, treat and manage a spreading epidemic would be mobilized. This would require more transparency and real-time information sharing for professionals and the public.

The challenge here is to create a platform in which high-quality and accurate information can be accessed by professionals and the public to avoid rumor-mongering and the spread of fake information in a crisis. This is where the digital component of the FOIP and BRI could easily find space to cohabit. Through the creation of a shared platform that is governed by an international board, real-time information on a crisis and the local and international response to that crisis could be gathered, checked for accuracy and translated for dissemination to stakeholders.

Some would argue that the Chinese political system would be challenged by this kind of transparency and accountability. To be fair, so would many emerging states in the region. Notwithstanding, the China-founded Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank is an example of how China accepted the internationalization of the AIIB’s governance, resulting in a strong track record of good governance.

A similar model is at least imaginable based on the AIIB. It would garner buy-in from most states in the region as transnational diseases, natural disasters and other crises don’t stay in the country of origin long, and as we have seen with COVID-19, supply chains that fuel the economic growth, prosperity and stability of this region can be easily disrupted in the advent of a “black swan” event like the current viral outbreak.

Post-crisis, an Indo-Pacific emergency response initiative would have an important role in assessing the damage associated with an outbreak as well as in picking up the pieces of shattered economies, exhausted health care systems and frightened citizens still wary of a crisis.

Here, an Indo-Pacific emergency response initiative could also have a role in liaising with regional and international organizations such as the World Health Organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure between the European Union and Japan, the Trilateral Infrastructure Partnership between Japan, the U.S. and Australia, and the BRI such that they could use their collective capacities and capabilities to rebuild areas most effected by a transnational disease or natural disaster.

While the COVID-19 outbreak in China has been heart-breaking to watch unfold, there is opportunity in this crisis to build an institution that serves the Indo-Pacific region. An Indo-Pacific emergency response initiative just might be the institution to inculcate more stability into the region. It could be a platform to effectively manage the inevitable but unpredictable shocks to the Indo-Pacific that will occur in the coming decades.

Importantly, this proposed initiative is a political space within the Indo-Pacific that policymakers could use to build cooperation and trust between stakeholders in the region.

Transnational diseases and other forms of nontraditional security issues are a place where the FOIP and the BRI can find convergence.

Japan and China should use their signature initiatives to embody the essence of the Chinese proverb “it often requires more than one person to resolve problems” and establish an Indo-Pacific emergency response initiative to decrease the chances that another tragedy like COVID-19 will derail the prosperity and stability of the Indo-Pacific region.

Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University and a visiting fellow at the Japan Institute for International Affairs.

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