SINGAPORE -- Security challenges in the South China Sea are "always present," Vietnam's foreign minister said Wednesday as the country hosts a four-day series of virtual ministerial meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its key partners including China and the U.S.
Speaking at an opening ceremony, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said that "factors threatening peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation and aviation in the South China Sea" are among challenges the region faces, an apparent criticism against Beijing's increasing activities in the area.
The remarks came ahead of a series of online meetings as the U.S. and China engage in an intense maritime tug of war. The ASEAN Regional Forum is scheduled for Saturday, the final day.
"ASEAN will persistently hold onto its principled position, emphasizing self-restraints, peaceful settlement of all disputes on the basis of international law, including 1982 UNCLOS, promoting dialogues, strengthening confidence building, non-militarization and refrain from further complicating the situation," Minh stressed, referring to the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea.
The 10 nation group will persistently promote "the full and serious implementation of the [Declaration of Conduct]" and will "endeavor to formulate an effective, substantive [code of conduct]," he added. ASEAN and China has been negotiating over a code of conduct, which has yet to be concluded.
While the South China Sea is among top issues to be discussed at the meetings, regional responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have also emerged as a key agenda item.
Minh noted that the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic is still looming and that ASEAN will "proactively contain the pandemic through prevention measures, development of accessible vaccines and medications" and "undertake early and effective actions to support the people and businesses."
According to a draft joint communique of Wednesday's ASEAN foreign ministers meeting seen by the Nikkei Asian Review, all the ASEAN members are exploring international collaboration in coronavirus vaccines.
They called for "enhanced collaboration and sharing of experience with ASEAN's partners in research, development, production, and distribution of vaccines, providing access to medicines for COVID-19 and other diseases in future public health emergencies, and making them available and affordable to all as global public goods," the draft communique says.
Some ASEAN members have already started exploring how to secure vaccine supplies. The Philippines said last month that it would begin clinical trials of a Russian-developed COVID-19 vaccine, while an Indonesian state-owned company has agreed to import vaccines from a Chinese biotech company.
The coronavirus has hit Southeast Asian nations hard, with April-June quarter GDP falling more than 10% from a year ago in Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Vietnam, which secured a marginal expansion of 0.4% in the second quarter, recently halved its full-year growth projections to a range of 2% to 2.5%.
While countries are starting to emerge from the strictest of their imposed restrictions, coronavirus vaccines would be crucial for achieving substantial economic recovery.
The joint statement also noted that members encouraged "the maintenance of necessary interconnectedness in the region" by facilitating to the extent possible the essential movement of people, including business travel.
As a part of regional economic integration, ASEAN had been promoting movement of people within the bloc, including that involving labor and business as well as holiday travel. But currently most countries continue to close their borders.
Singapore and Malaysia last month set up two bilateral "green lane" programs, but such intra-regional frameworks have yet to be seen in the rest of the region as some countries including Indonesia and the Philippines continue to report more than 1,000 new cases of infection a day.