Southeast Asia’s response to the ongoing pandemic is far from ideal. Fortunately, the region is receiving assistance from perhaps rather unexpected sources: 50,000 COVID-19 test kits were sent from Seoul directly to Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport; Taiwan announced on Tuesday that they will be providing millions of face masks to Southeast Asian countries.
This marks a milestone in the shifting geopolitical dynamics of the East Asian region, where South Korea and Taiwan are of increasing relevance to Southeast Asia. This article examines the success of these two countries and seeks to shed light on the possible implications on the region.
Korea was at one point, the country with the highest number of confirmed cases outside China. The administration’s proactive attitude and transparency has flattened the curve effectively. While universities have moved their classes online, the capital city Seoul was never in lockdown, shops did not see a wave of panic buying like other places in the world. The short term blow on their international image is paying off. In response to President Donald Trump’s call for help, Korea is now providing coronavirus testing materials to the United States.
Taiwan, on the other hand, is only separated from mainland China by the Taiwan Strait which barely stretches over a hundred miles. In recent years, the rise of the “Taishang” class of merchants oversaw increased commercial interactions between Taiwan and the mainland. Despite its close proximity to China, the epicenter of the virus, Taiwan has managed to contain the outbreak with less than 400 cases, most of which are imported cases of Taiwanese returning from overseas.
Taiwan’s success has to do with its strict and decisive public health policies, and lessons learnt from the SARS outbreak which also originated from China seventeen years ago. There is now a new impetus among the international community for Taiwan to be recognized in the World Health Organization.
One of Taiwan’s major policies was to secure the domestic supply of masks early on, banning the export of masks and increasing Taiwan’s mask-manufacturing capacity. With over 10 million pieces a day, Taiwan rose from a net importer to the world’s second largest mask manufacturer. Even one of Hong Kong’s private sector mask producers imported their machinery from Taiwan in response to the shortage of masks in the city.
When supply was stable on the island, President Tsai Ingwen announced the first wave of international assistance, donating 10 million masks to the United States, Europe and diplomatic partners. The second wave of “mask diplomacy” was officially announced on Tuesday, with over 1 million masks earmarked for countries under the New Southbound Policy, most of which are ASEAN member states. Tsai is conveying a message to the world that “Taiwan can help,” and “Taiwan is helping.”
In the first half of 2020, Korea and Taiwan are establishing themselves as trustworthy, reliable partners in combating the global pandemic. Indeed, Southeast Asia has much to learn from Taiwan on the prevention of an outbreak, and from Korea on crisis management amidst an epidemic in the country. The may also mark the beginning towards a longer term shifting geopolitical order.
Traditionally, Japan has played a significant role in Southeast Asia’s modernization through infrastructural projects and funding through the Asian Development Bank. In the previous decade, China has been courting Southeast Asian countries through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt and Road Initiative. However, both countries are losing their relevance in the region, at least temporarily.
Even though China managed to prevent the coronavirus from being called the “Wuhan virus”, many are disappointed with the regime’s lack of transparency in the first place. China’s “covid diplomacy” seems to be backfiring, with the Netherlands recalling inadequate face masks from China and Spain reporting Chinese test kits to be inaccurate. Japan’s passivity, on the other hand, has contributed to the postponing of the Tokyo Olympics. This is a huge blow to the Japanese economy.
In recent years, the incumbent Presidents of Taiwan and Korea have shown unprecedented interest in the Southeast Asian countries. Within the same year of her election, Taiwan’s Tsai Ingwen announced the New Southbound Policy, a foreign policy agenda to strengthen relations with 18 countries from Southeast Asia to Oceania. Similarly, Korea’s Moon Jae-in also initiated the New Southern Policy to deepen ties with the 10 ASEAN member states and India shortly after his election. The pandemic has provided an occasion for them to display solidarity and prove their commitment towards enhancing relations with Southeast Asia. The increased interactions will likely perpetuate in the form of trade and investment.
Regardless of the extent to which China and Japan would be able to recover from this pandemic, Korea and Taiwan will continue to have an increased presence in the ASEAN region.
Words by Truston Yu | The opinions expressed here are his own.
Truston is a research assistant at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, the University of Hong Kong and is currently based in Seoul. Their primary interests are in Southeast Asian studies and international law. Truston is also a contributor to the Jakarta Post.