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International relations

ASEAN to devise post-COVID plan for 'long-term immunity'

Vietnam will chair online summit that will also discuss South China Sea dispute

A video conference with ASEAN leaders in April: Friday’s virtual summit will be chaired by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.    © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will discuss plans for a recovery from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Friday during a virtual summit, as the region focuses on overcoming economic and geopolitical challenges posed by the disease.

The 10-member bloc convenes twice a year, usually in April and November, to discuss a broad range of matters from the regional economy to security to society issues. This year's April summit, meant to be held in the central Vietnamese city of Danang, was postponed due to the pandemic. Friday's meeting will be chaired by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

As the region starts to relax restrictions put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, one of the top items on the agenda will be post-pandemic recovery. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is expected to propose "promoting ASEAN's long-term immunity with the formulation of a post-COVID recovery plan, under which sustainable public health, food and human security are to be focused [on]," the Thai government said.

In April, ASEAN held a special online meeting to discuss a response to the pandemic. Now, as countries reopen their economies, the focus will "move from coordinating an immediate public health response which was a key priority in April to strategizing a longer-term post-COVID recovery for ASEAN economies," Sharon Seah, coordinator for ASEAN Studies Center at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore think tank, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

The leaders will establish a regional fund for COVID-19, with support from key partner countries like China and Japan, to help those countries in particular trouble. The leaders are also expected to focus on protecting the regional supply chain to ensure the free flow of goods and investments.

While some countries have committed to bilateral agreements for essential cross-border travel, the "conversation has not really popped up" at the multilateral level, one ASEAN diplomatic source told Nikkei.

"Because each country is at different stages, each has different scenarios and different travel measures," the source said.

ASEAN, with a population of 650 million, is one of the world's fastest growing regions that has attracted investments from all over. But the pandemic has changed the landscape. The Asian Development Bank on June 18 projected that gross domestic product in Southeast Asia this year will shrink 2.7%, a sharp drop from 4.4% growth in 2019.

"Most countries in the [region] have started to relax restrictions, but weak consumer confidence may hinder economic recovery," the bank said in its latest economic outlook report. "Moreover, external demand will remain muted for the rest of this year as the global economy contracts."

On top of strengthening policy coherence on the free flow of cross-border trade, investment and labor, ASEAN member states should also "promote transparency of the current situation of COVID-19 outbreak in individual member states through data sharing and online publications," said Sithanonxay Suvannaphakdy, lead researcher at ISEAS.

This would help member states "gain more confidence in conducting cross-border economic activities with each other," he told Nikkei.

The coronavirus pandemic has also changed the geopolitical landscape. China, already facing strained relations with the U.S. and India, has expanded activities in the South China Sea, after emerging from the pandemic at a time when others were still struggling. Beijing is now planning massive military drills in the area as early as this summer.

The South China Sea has been a key issue of contention for ASEAN. The bloc and China have been negotiating the code of conduct in the sea, which was supposed to conclude by 2021. But the pandemic has delayed talks.

"Due to ostensive issues and major sticky points, it may not be possible to do in three years [since the start of negotiations in 2018]," the ASEAN diplomatic source said.

In last year's statement by the ASEAN chair, the region expressed "concerns" over the sea without naming China. Since this year's ASEAN chair Vietnam has long been in dispute with China over the sea, it is likely to urge other member states to maintain such wording in its statement.

Additional reporting by Mayuko Tani in Singapore and Masayuki Yuda in Bangkok.

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