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Japan must cement ties with ASEAN in health care security

Southeast Asia increasingly reliant on Tokyo for guidance and help

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe participates in the "ASEAN Plus Three" virtual leaders' summit in April. Southeast Asian leaders and their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea spoke via video links to draw up a strategy to overcome the crisis.   © AP

BANGKOK -- Despite some skepticism in the West that Tokyo has been successful in curbing the spread of coronavirus, Southeast Asian countries are still looking to Japan for direction and help as the pandemic provides an opportunity for Tokyo to form closer ties with the region.

The Japanese government's declaration of a state of emergency has been criticized by some as having no teeth, given as authorities are not able to enforce social distancing. However, the fact that the death rate in Japan has not risen to the tens of thousands seen in the Europe and the U.S., some in Southeast Asia have been more forgiving about Tokyo's attempts.

On May 5, Singapore's main English daily, state-owned The Straits Times, pointed to Japanese compliance with government advice as exemplary. The daily reported that although Japan's state of emergency "carries no penalties," many Japanese have "complied with the 'strong requests' for the public to stay home and for businesses to shut."

A senior Indonesian government official said separately that it would have been difficult for Tokyo to impose stricter rules across the entire country. "Compared with South Korea and Taiwan, Japan is a large country and it is difficult to cope with [the virus outbreak.] Our evaluation of Japan remains unchanged," he said.

In other words, Southeast Asia remains a fan. This confidence in Japan is also reflected diplomatically.

Despite efforts to restrict the movements of its population, Indonesia still has 15,000 coronavirus cases.   © Reuters

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang demonstrated his country's healthcare support for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, at the Special ASEAN Plus Three Summit on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) on April 14.

At the emergency video conference, Li announced China provided 100 million face masks, 10 million protective suits and other urgently needed medical supplies to ASEAN. While largely accepting China's "mask diplomacy," ASEAN has been careful not to let its guard down.

Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said that "there must be caution not to overly depend on China or allow it to dominate. ASEAN must try to preserve its strategic space between the great powers." As the U.S. has increasingly turned away from Asia and focused instead on its "America First" strategy under President Donald Trump, ASEAN has looked to Japan as a counter power to China in the region.

According to diplomatic sources, ASEAN, under pressure from China to convene a bilateral summit meeting in April, made a last-minute call for Japan and South Korea to participate in it, turning the conference into an "ASEAN Plus Three" meeting. This shows ASEAN's determination to keep Japan and South Korea in the loop.

While Japan is no match for China in the medical supplies it can offer to ASEAN, it can do more to nurture that relationship. Japanese mask manufacturer Koken is one such example.

Koken has been producing in Thailand since 2015 but at the height of the outbreak in Asia mid-February, its high-performance N95 masks were blocked from being exported back home as Bangkok moved to keep such supplies within the country.

After two weeks of negotiations, Koken received the green light to ship 60% of its N95 output to Japan while giving the rest to Thailand.

It was easy for Koken to set up production facilities in Thailand as it was already home to numerous Japanese companies. Also, Thailand's influenza season is June to August, unlike Japan's which is December to March, which means that producing in the Southeast Asian country made strategic sense as demand would be spread out over a longer period.

Koken President Tsutomu Murakawa said recently: "It was exactly our risk diversification plan to prepare for the infection spread like the latest one. But the global crisis was unexpected."

In fact, ASEAN already is a major exporter of the five main types of personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves and protective gowns, according to figures from Sithanonxay Suvannaphakdy, Lead Researcher of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

ASEAN exported $8.5 billion worth of such products in 2018, accounting for 18% of the global market and roughly half of China's share. In the same year, ASEAN imported $1 billion worth of such products, resulting in a sizable trade surplus in the five product categories. But ASEAN has experienced a temporary shortage of them amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Workers make face masks at a factory near Jakarta .ASEAN is a major exporter of personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves and protective gowns worn by health care workers.   © Reuters

Before the pandemic, only 10% of the five main health care products were exported to Japan from ASEAN in 2018, exposing its dependence on China for medical supplies.

While it is understandable that Japan wants to be more self-reliant, it can also lean more on its relationship with ASEAN in this area. Tokyo announced an emergency economic package in April that included 220 billion yen ($2.06 billion) in subsidies to encourage domestic companies to move production back home and over 400 have reportedly said they would.

Such efforts should be promoted, but Tokyo must also be mindful that Japan often suffers earthquakes that can disrupt its production capabilities, and that it faces chronic labor shortage due to an aging population.

Perhaps due to these considerations, the emergency package also included 23.5 billion yen ($220 million) in subsidies for domestic companies that are diversifying their production bases into ASEAN.

It would be rational for Japan to further increase such subsidies and strengthen its relations with ASEAN countries to ensure future procurement.

To this end, Japan offered in April to support the establishment of the "ASEAN Center for Infectious Diseases" in April. The Japanese public and private sectors can help ASEAN fully prepare for such health care crises in the future by increasing investments.

It should boost investment to help ASEAN expand production, not only of face masks and gloves but also of more sophisticated medical products, such as ventilators, using existing supply chains.

At the same time, the ASEAN Center for Infectious Diseases should establish a system for the prevention of epidemics and to stockpile an intraregional supply of medical products. Japan can benefit from this.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the coronavirus pandemic has provided "a window" into how a bioterrorist attack might unfold across the world.

As he warned, measures against infectious diseases will become a necessity in national security in the future. Since viruses do not respect national boundaries, countries cannot ensure such "health care security" on their own.

Japan should take advantage of ASEAN's respect for it to cement its relationship with the bloc in this area.

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