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International relations

ASEAN falls under spotlight in talks on trade and COVID: 5 things to know

RCEP members to sign deal on Sunday without India; South China Sea on agenda

The 10 ASEAN nations will come together digitally for their final summit this year to talk about supply chains, security in the South China Sea and hastening their recoveries from COVID-19.   © EPA/Jiji

SINGAPORE -- Southeast Asian leaders will meet online on Thursday in the first summit since the U.S. presidential election, the outcome of which will have a great effect as a new international order shakes out.

The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are playing an increasingly large role on the global stage as they emerge from the pandemic and navigate the economic straits between the U.S. and China, and China increases its presence in the region.

They will discuss COVID-19, trade and regional security at the biannual gathering. Related meetings, such as the East Asia Summit, an 18-member dialogue that includes the U.S. and China, as well as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership summit, will take place during the weekend.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's Democratic Party singled out ASEAN in its platform ahead of last week's election. "We will reinvigorate our commitment to robust engagement with regional multilateral institutions like [ASEAN], which will help us promote the rule of law and sustainable, inclusive economic growth on both sides of the Pacific," it says, suggesting an increased U.S. presence in the region.

As ASEAN members gradually emerge from the pandemic, and as the global community warms up to a Biden administration, the meetings offer an important platform to the region.

Here's what you need to know.

Will the RCEP partners conclude their negotiations?

The talks will conclude but without India, according to Vietnam, this year's ASEAN chair.

Nguyen Quoc Dung, Vietnam's deputy minister of foreign affairs, said during a news conference on Monday that negotiations on the trade agreement have been completed and participating countries are working on internal procedures. "If these procedures are completed in a timely manner," he said, "the deal is expected to be signed on Nov. 15," the day of the RCEP summit.

Separately, Azmin Ali, Malaysia's minister of international trade and industry, said in a statement on Wednesday that RCEP members have concluded negotiations and will sign the agreement on Sunday. The signing, he said, will "send a positive signal to the world that Malaysia, together with the other RCEP countries, have chosen to open our markets instead of resorting to protectionist measures during this difficult time."

RCEP negotiations started in 2013 among 16 countries -- the 10 ASEAN members, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. The talks gained momentum after Donald Trump became U.S. president, with members motivated to seek free trade amid a growing protectionist trend that would eventually also claim India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi grew reluctant to open up his economy due to its expected impact on farmers and manufacturers.

Even without India's 1.35 billion people, the 15 remaining countries form an enormous economic bloc that accounts for some 30% of the world's population.

Will there be any progress in talks with China on rules governing the South China Sea?

There does not seem to be any rush. Beijing is emphasizing the economic benefits that China's huge economy bestows on its trade partners. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Tuesday said, "The year 2020 has seen an increase in both trade and investment between China and ASEAN against the odds." He noted ASEAN became China's largest trade partner and that Chinese investment in ASEAN in the first three quarters grew by 76.6%.

Premier Li Keqiang will be representing China at the meetings, including at an ASEAN-China summit on Thursday, where Southeast Asian leaders will likely seek cooperation economically and in regard to public health, including in the distribution of coronavirus vaccines.

Wang said China will be focusing on cooperation in regard to vaccines, diagnosis, therapeutics technology and experience as it looks to build regional stability and prosperity.

These issues may keep the parties from getting down to work on a code of conduct agreement to govern the South China Sea, an important stretch of water in which China and various Southeast Asian nations have overlapping claims.

ASEAN and China have been negotiating the code of conduct -- rules and norms meant to avoid conflict -- for years now. Initially, the goal was to complete a pact in 2021, but the pandemic has delayed matters.

Where is ASEAN along the path in recovering from COVID?

The outbreak's severity varies by country. Indonesia and the Philippines have reported the region's largest infection totals -- over 440,000 in Indonesia and 400,000 in the other archipelago -- and are reporting thousands of new cases daily. Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam in recent days have been reporting fewer than 10 new cases each, while daily reports from Malaysia and Myanmar have been in the triple digits.

Economies are particularly vulnerable in some countries that are dependent on external demand and foreign tourists, as international borders remain mostly closed.

For the July-September quarter, Indonesia reported a year-on-year economic contraction of 3.5%, Singapore 7% and the Philippines 11.5%. In each case, the number represents an improvement from the preceding quarter, though each country lags key economic partners China, which reported a 4.9% gain, and South Korea, up 1.9%.

What outcomes can we expect the ASEAN summit to produce?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the members have prioritized supply chain connectivity, especially in regard to food and medical supplies, and uninterrupted investment flows.

After Thursday's summit, the members are expected to announce the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework, which will lay out how the countries will cooperate when they start putting the pandemic behind them.

The framework, according to Singaporean trade minister Chan Chun Sing, "represents our collective efforts to enable the ASEAN economies to maximize the benefits of greater economic integration to spur recovery and longer-term resilience."

When it comes to public health management, the leaders are expected to launch a regional medical supply reserve for future emergencies.

Earlier, they agreed to promote online health care services as well as to create a regional fund for coronavirus responses. The member countries and key economic partners have also explored how they can cooperate to mitigate COVID-19's impact, including through joint scientific research projects and by collaborating in the development of vaccines and medicines.

What other major issues will be discussed?

According to the Vietnamese government, the members will release the midterm review of their ASEAN Community Vision 2025 Blueprint, a plan toward regional integration that was adopted in 2015.

With the global order undergoing great change in the past five years, and as it is expected to remain in flux for the time being, ASEAN leaders will find it difficult to escape the spotlight as they navigate the next five years and beyond.

The chairman's statement is also expected to take up climate change and other key issues as well as give an update on East Timor's application to be ASEAN's 11th member.

On Sunday, Vietnam is expected to hand over its ASEAN chairmanship to Brunei, which will be the chair for 2021.

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