ASEAN defence ministers have pledged to work together to manage infectious disease outbreaks as several member states continue to grapple with the coronavirus.
At the end of the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Retreat in Hanoi on Wednesday, the group adopted a joint statement on Defence Cooperation Against Disease Outbreaks, said Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (Mindef).
The joint statement, which was co-sponsored by Vietnam and Singapore, reaffirmed the group’s commitment to promoting defence cooperation, including cooperation in military medicine through the Asean Centre for Military Medicine, and with external partners to organise information and sharing of best practices.
It said that the ministers also agreed to use the network of Asean chemical, biological and radiological defence experts to enhance professional linkages and promote scientific cooperation to manage infectious disease outbreaks.
The ministers discussed the impact of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, on the region, said Mindef.
The coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan in central China, has spread elsewhere, including to several countries in the region, with confirmed cases reported in Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Major General Vu Tien Trong, head of Vietnam’s Ministry of Defence’s Institute of International Defence Relations, told a press briefing on Wednesday that Vietnam aims to foster Asean unity in its chairmanship this year to prevent the regional bloc from “having to choose sides”, in the context of growing strategic competition between global powers.
While Trong did not specify the countries involved, rivalry and power struggles between China and the US put these countries at the forefront of speculation.
Vietnam’s theme for this year’s chairmanship – Cohesive and Responsive – demonstrates the country’s commitments to work within Asean to retain the bloc’s “self-reliance, autonomy and independence” so as not to be “swayed by the complicated developments” in the world and the region, Trong said.
Asean members have agreed that all efforts must be expended in fostering a unified front, with a unified vision, voice and actions, he said.
Regarding military involvement, Vietnam is pushing for deeper collaboration to identify traditional and non-traditional threats of mutual concern, from which orientations can be devised based on the principle of consensus and then agencies from member countries can work together to realise those orientations, Trong said.
He added that each country must be aware of their responsibilities and interests to effectively cooperate, therefore Vietnam is working to strengthen the unity of Asean.
He cited the swift adoption of the joint statement of Asean Defence Ministers’ regarding military cooperation in combating the respiratory disease outbreak Covid-19 – a “transboundary issue that no single country can cope with on its own” – as one of the clear examples showing how Asean can join hands to deal with emerging non-traditional threats, as well as cybersecurity and anti-terrorism.
The statement meets the expectations of Asean, who wish for effective and quick efforts in containing the disease to restore a sense of normality to their lives and countries’ economy.
Singapore’s Minister of Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen said in a statement: “It was important we expressed that all defence establishments are committed to remaining together as one Asean, that we would not be divided, and that we understood that when individual countries take actions it is to protect their people, not to retaliate.”
“More importantly, we have to collaborate to deal with this viral outbreak and the fight is against the virus and not each other.”
The ADMM Retreat is an informal meeting among the defence ministers of the 10 Asean member states. The ADMM-Plus includes eight other countries which are dialogue partners of Asean – Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the US.
This year is the 10th anniversary since the ADMM-Plus was established.
Dr Ng said the ADMM and ADMM-Plus platforms have become entrenched in this part of the world. “That is a significant achievement because Asean, by accomplishing this, has shown that it is relevant and credible.”
Dr Ng attended the Asean-Australia Defence Ministers’ Informal Meeting on Wednesday, where his Australian counterpart, Linda Reynolds, spoke about security challenges in the region.
Reynolds also affirmed Australia’s commitment to strengthening the Asean-Australia relationship, while the Asean defence ministers expressed their support for Australia’s continued efforts to deepen engagement with Asean through ADMM-Plus, said Mindef.
Dr Ng was accompanied by Permanent Secretary for Defence Chan Heng Kee, and other Mindef and Singapore Armed Forces officials on his three-day trip to Vietnam that began on Tuesday.
THE STRAITS TIMES (SINGAPORE)/VIET NAM NEWS/ASIA NEWS NETWORK