International Relations in the New Normal

Published on 19 Jun 2020

The following are points made by speakers from the diplomatic corp during the webinar hosted by KSI Strategic Institute for Asia Pacific and the Economic Club of Kuala Lumpur (ECKL) on 17th June 2020. 


Datuk M. Suppermaniam, ECKL EXCO /Former Malaysian Ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO)

The pandemic has coincided with mounting populist resistance to globalisation and post-war international order. This is fuelled by inequities within and beyond countries. There are concerns that the pandemic will lead to long-term and considerable implications, leading to growing protectionism. This creates limited options which would have helped in recovery. It is important to maintain dialogue between countries not only to counter COVID-19 to restore confidence, but also to preserve financial stability and revive growth.


HE Le Quy Quynh PhD, Ambassador of Vietnam to Malaysia

Vietnam has undertaken two important appointments as the chair of ASEAN and a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2020 and 2021. ‘Cohesive and Responsive’ has been chosen as ASEAN’s theme for year 2020. Cohesiveness symbolises ASEAN’s unity and solidarity in the face of increasing challenges and ‘Responsive’ reflects Vietnam’s intent to promote greater ASEAN pro-activism to defend the regional and extra-regional interests.

Vietnam’s five priorities for 2020 are, firstly, to promote ASEAN’s role of its contribution towards the maintenance regional peace, security and stability. Secondly, to enhance regional connectivity and adaptation, optimise opportunities from the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Thirdly, to promote awareness of the ASEAN Community identity by encouraging the development of common values. Fourthly, to reinforce partnership for peaceful and sustainable development with countries around the world. Fifthly, to improve ASEAN productivity, adaptation and efficiency though institutional reform and improving cooperation.

In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, Vietnam has skilfully dealt with the pandemic and has sustained no fatalities with risk totally contained. As the chair of ASEAN in 2020, Vietnam has kept all channels of communication open among ASEAN members to share their problems and take appropriate action. A collective response towards COVID-19 was issued by the ASEAN Chair in mid-February which drew attention towards the risk of this virus and called for regional and international cooperation. On 14th April 2020, Vietnam organised the online ASEAN+3 Special Summit on Covid-19 response. Vietnam has also participated in several international regional meetings and shared its experience and shared proposed measures to deal with the pandemic. Vietnam has also supplied much needed medical equipment and protective gears in the region, but also to the rest of Asia, Europe, the United States, and South Africa.

The most important task ahead is to contain increasing aggression in the South China Sea. Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia and the United States has sent a diplomatic note to the United Nations to protest China’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea.  Vietnam and its ASEAN partners must have a firm stand in requesting other nations to respect international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 and to settle all issues through peaceful means. This will allow the South China Sea to be a peaceful region that will be mutually beneficial for all nations in the region and the rest of the world.

Vietnam’s priorities in the upcoming ASEAN Summit and related summits in the near future is to pay special attention to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recovery. As the rate of COVID-19 infection slows down, the Vietnamese government has begun to ease restrictions for the recovery of the national economy. COVID-19 response measures require further strengthening of coordination of national and regional efforts to ensure that ASEAN practices responsive measure to eliminate the threats of the virus. Such measures include the sharing of information, experiences, and best practices among ASEAN member-states, ASEAN and China, the partners of ASEAN, the WHO, and international organisations.

ASEAN cohesiveness needs to be promoted to respond more effectively to crisis’s in the region and the needs of development among its member-countries. While it has been alleged that ASEAN’s efforts have not been well coordinated, it has nonetheless been working towards consensus on important issues. Though there may not be consensus at all times among its 10 member countries, they do try their best to be responsive and cohesive towards important issues concerning ASEAN, especially in the light of the COVID-19 crisis.


HE Charles Hay MVO, British High Commissioner to Malaysia

There has been a short-term phenomenon of the closing-down of borders. In 2020, the United Kingdom (UK) is dealing with leaving the European Union (EU). One of the much-discussed issues during the political debate over Brexit was on the openness of borders. Many UK citizens voted for Brexit has they believe that borders were too open with too much movement of people coming into the UK. This led to two arguments for Brexit – one concerns the closing of borders, while the other states that membership with the EU has caused the UK to become to inward looking and focused on Europe instead of the wider world. However, the recent troubles in Hong Kong has raised the question whether the UK should issue BNOs to those who do not currently have British residency status in the UK. A majority of British national were willing to consider this, providing clear evidence that the UK is a more outward looking country than presented.

Technically, the UK has already left the EU since January 2020. It is currently undergoing a transition period where it is negotiating its future trade relationship with the EU. The UK government has made it clear that it is not inclined to ask for an extension for the transition period and will be moving to a set of arrangements towards the end of 2020. This will give a welcome clarity to businesses, but it yet unclear is what these arrangements will be. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is confident that the UK and EU will reach a deal before the end of 2020.

In the area of international trade, the UK has been admitted into the WTO for the first time since 1973. It will soon update its policy towards the CTPPP as it has intention of joining it at some point in the future, but will not be making a formal application to join at this stage. The UK will also be firming terms of reference for its trade negotiations for free trade agreements (FTAs) with Australia and New Zealand. Hence, the UK has active negotiations with the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, alongside negotiations with the EU. It has published its tariff tables which will apply after the transition period ends, which is an important building block for its independent trade policy. The countries of ASEAN represent £40 billion of trade, which is an increase of approximately 75 percent in a decade. Malaysia is the UK’s second biggest market in ASEAN worth £5 billion a year.

The UK is looking to develop its political relationship with ASEAN. I t has just submitted its application to become a dialogue partner with ASEAN. In November 2019, the UK appointed its first UK Bilateral Ambassador to ASEAN.

Education provision has been complicated due to COVID-19 as many universities have announced that they will not be conducting face-to-face lessons until the end of the calendar year and potentially beyond. This throws the value of an overseas education into doubt, as much money will be spent on overseas education only to sit in a room for online lessons which one might as well do at home.

While ASEAN has been criticised for being ineffective and not having the necessary tools to bring about cooperation, it was pointed out that the United Kingdom has left the European Union which does have such tools and mechanism. Yet, this proved too constraining and restrictive for the UK. There needs to be a balance. When an institution is created with coercive tools at its disposal, it may be prone to problems when it involves issues of sovereignty.

The heartening to see the way the world has come together in pledging financial resources for vaccine research. During the Global Vaccine Summit, which aimed to raise USD$7 billion, was able to instead raised USD$8.8 billion. This shows that countries need to come together on issues like COVID and can still do so in different ways despite their differences.


Mr Dean Thompson, Chargé d’Affaires, a.i., U.S. Embassy Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the deep interconnectedness between ASEAN and the United States (US) economy. Their mutual growth is tied together, making it important for them to continue working together through continued trade and by keeping supply chains open.

The US thanked Malaysia for taking heroic efforts to keep vital supply chains open, allowing the flow of medical supplies to the US, ASEAN, Europe, and the rest of the world. They also thanked Malaysia for keeping these supply chains open to allow the US to provide fruits, vegetables, poultry and meat to Malaysian families.

Despite COVID-19, the US is confident that its engagement with ASEAN’s ten member states will continue to grow stronger as it continues to uphold sovereignty, transparency, good governance, ASEAN centrality, and rules-based order in conjunction with all US’ allies and partners. The US’ priority areas are outline in its ASEAN Indo-Pacific Outlook, a complementary strategy to the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, aimed at bolstering ties in the region. These priority areas are in economic cooperation, infrastructure, maritime, and connectivity.

In terms of economic cooperation, in 2018, US two-way trade with ASEAN in goods and services amounted to USD$334 billion. US investments in ASEAN amounted to USD$271 billion, which is more than investment in China and Japan combined. To facilitate increased trade, the US and ASEAN Secretariat have opened negotiations to link the ASEAN Single Window with the US Automated Commercial Environmental System. Facilitating the expansion of trade is critical to the region’s economic health and will be instrumental in helping families regain their earnings and quality of life as it recovers.

In sustainable infrastructure development, the US is cooperating with Australia, Japan and other nations to establish the Blue Dot Network. This is a multi-sector platform that will provide globally-recognised infrastructure projects adhering to global best practices, advanced qualities, sustainable and safe infrastructure investment standards. The Infrastructure Transaction & Assistance Network’s (ITAN) transaction advisory fund will provide legal advisory services and technical assistance to ASEAN countries to assess potential infrastructure projects. The US launched USD$48 million in ITAN in 2019 and potential projects are being evaluated. The Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership saw the provision of support in infrastructure development by promoting transparent regulatory policies for opening competitive markets. This allows partners to build capacity to address shared security threats along capacity building and commercial engagement activities.

In the area of maritime cooperation, the SEA Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative Commanders Forum was co-hosted with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) and the US Coast Guard which brought together regional coast guard commanders for discussions and workshops focused on countering illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and promote information sharing to prevent illicit activities in the maritime domain. The US is a donor to multiple UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (ODC) programmes that focus on improving collaboration between maritime enforcement agencies in Southeast Asia. The US supports a free and open rules-based order that upholds the sovereign rights of all nations. Principles of lawful, unimpeded commerce, freedom of navigation and overflight, and other lawful uses of the sea, peaceful management and resolution of disputes and respect for international law are vital to global security and economic growth.

In connectivity, the US-ASEAN Smart Cities Partnership (USASCP) programme seeks to connect US public and private sectors with 26 member cities in the ASEAN Smart Cities Network to solve challenges of rapid urbanisation. With an initial investment of USD$10 million, USASCP is developing smart city solutions and strengthening regional cybersecurity capability and capacity. Additional projects by the US Department of Transportation supports the development of smart public transportation and water smart engagement programmes to increasing water security in the ASEAN region. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) launched the ASEAN Policy Implementation (API) Project with an initial commitment of USD$2 million to strengthen ASEAN centrality by supporting ASEAN member state implementation of ASEAN policies under the ASEAN Economic Community. The US’ Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) has seen much success as YSEALI alumni have a track record of making a difference in their own communities and countries.

The US-China Trade deal is much alive despite COVID-19’s interruption on all economies. These efforts will resume as countries recover. On matters of decoupling, the US government has no control on where its companies put their investments or how they restructure. These companies may be restructuring in the interest of diversification, which could be healthy for the wider ASEAN region as new relationships develop or as additional supply routes are considered as backups. These are adjustments as the world’s two largest economies have interest in finding a way forward with fundamental benefits for their own countries. While this will make for more challenging negotiations, discussions on the matter will nonetheless continue. In the long-term, there is much room for optimism.


Drs MA Lingga Setawan, Minister Counselor from the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia

International trade has faced protectionism and tensions which were on the rise even before the COVID-19 outbreak. This is evident from escalating trade tensions between US and China. The World Bank noted that USD$1 trillion worth or 7 percent of global trade was affected, which is continuing to slow down global demand. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression is anticipated. In Southeast Asia, growth is expected to drop. Even in Q1 2020, Indonesia’s economy only grew by 2.7 percent, with a predicted contraction of 3 percent for Q2 2020. This economic fallout could drive an additional 11 million people into poverty. There are looming job losses, including those in the informal sector.

 The fear of COVID-19 infection has caused all countries in the world, including those in Southeast Asia, to exercise policies to protect the wellbeing of their own citizens in terms of securing affordable basic essential needs and to maintain a healthy domestic market. Some countries have exercised lockdowns of borders not only to limit the movement of people, but also the movement of goods, prioritising public safety.  Indonesia itself has restricted the export of PPE to secure its domestic market, but this will be lifted at the end of June 2020. These policies will in some way hurt international relations. For example, the openness of receiving visitors is only limited to those deemed essential. Hence, a previously open and friendly neighbourhood has taken precautious action due to COVID-19.

The pandemic brings challenges to each country in overcoming socioeconomic issues that will emerge in different forms. It is impossible for each country to find a solution on its own. Hence, diplomacy and cooperation must be prioritised in order to find practical solutions to ensure the ease of trade of medicine and medical equipment, as well as essential agriculture produce. In multilateral forums, diplomacy needs to adopt a new normal to tackle present pandemic and post pandemic actions. Indonesia plans to be more active in the G20, foreign policy dialogues on health, and other forums.

Diplomacy will ensure information exchanges in emergency responses, trace of infections, possible medicines to cure COVID-19, and developing a vaccine. This requires diplomacy to adapt. What previously can be done face-to-face must now be conducted through digital means, such is diplomacy in the new normal where virtual meetings, video conferencing, and the use of social media have become normal practice. However, this highlights challenges in digital connectivity and digital infrastructure issues for less developed nations that needs to be discussed and resolved in the regional and multilateral diplomacy.

Overcoming COVID-19 provides new opportunities for cooperation between the public, private and social sectors. New protocols to overcome COVID need to be supported. Citizens need to be more diligent in their hygiene practices, the practice of social distancing, and the wearing of face mask. Throughout this crisis ASEAN has kept its goal of maintaining its cohesiveness as one community. Meetings between its leaders, ministers and senior officials has led to the creation of an action plan to address present and post-COVID matters of emergency relief and future economic cooperation.

These measures are additions to the existing programmes to achieve the vision of ASEAN Community 2025. ASEAN nations must guard and keep up the spirit of cooperation, collaboration, and solidarity in this new era. To promote cohesiveness among ASEAN nations, it has set up the ASEAN Community, established its 2025 Vision which has a set of 100 common deliverables in every sector. Guidelines are being set for enable each ASEAN member to develop policies in their own countries. This is an ongoing process, but at least there is still one vision, which will be followed with other measures to maintain the cohesiveness of ASEAN into the future.



19 Jun 2020