ASEAN summit spotlights COVID-19 response, Free and Open Indo-Pacific

ASEAN summit spotlights COVID-19 response, Free and Open Indo-Pacific


Public health cooperation, economic recovery and a commitment to ensuring the South China Sea’s future as “a sea of peace, stability, security and safety” united Indo-Pacific allies and partners during the 37th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit.

A global pandemic that continues to test the region nearly a year after its outbreak dominated the four-day virtual summit chaired by Vietnam.

“We are going through incredibly difficult times in which the livelihood and lives of our people are under threat by the COVID-19 pandemic while the economic and social life is in disarray and further aggravated by severe natural disasters, storms, floods and droughts,” Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, pictured, said in his opening remarks November 12, 2020.

Days before the summit, the association’s 10 member states approved the ASEAN Strategic Framework for Public Health Emergencies to boost detection, preparedness and response measures, while reinforcing regional health security. The framework notes that COVID-19 is the latest in a series of deadly epidemics to infect the region in the past 20 years, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the H5N1 avian influenza and the Zika virus.

Regional partners such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States continue to bolster ASEAN’s COVID-19 response with funding, medical supplies and equipment, and other support.

“At this time of global crisis, the U.S.-ASEAN strategic partnership has become even more important as we work together to combat the coronavirus,” U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said during the eighth ASEAN-U.S. Summit, held online as part of the larger event.

The U.S. has contributed U.S. $87 million to Southeast Asia during the pandemic, providing personal protective equipment, ventilators and other supplies, O’Brien said, according to The Associated Press.

“The United States has your back, and we know you have ours,” he said.

Five nations — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand — founded ASEAN in August 1967 and were later joined by Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Among other aims, the organization’s founding declaration calls for accelerated economic growth, including through expanded trade. That goal took a significant step forward during the November summit as the ASEAN members states joined Australia, Japan, New Zealand, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and South Korea in signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The pact is ASEAN’s biggest trade deal and encompasses a market of 2.2 billion people representing almost one-third of global gross domestic product, according to the association.

“RCEP will give a much-needed boost for a swift and robust recovery for businesses and peoples in our region, particularly during the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis,” Dato Lim Jock Hoi, ASEAN’s secretary-general, said in a statement.

Another shared priority for ASEAN and its allies and partners is the strategic importance of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, in ensuring a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have objected to the PRC’s arbitrary and legally unsupported claims to much of the sea. The PRC has persisted with aggressive actions in the area, including violating other nations’ exclusive economic zones, despite worldwide outcry.

In opening the summit, Phuc reiterated that the rule of law must be respected.

“ASEAN has also expressed consistently its principled position and strong commitment to turning the South China Sea, a critical sea lane of the region and the world, into a sea of peace, stability, security and safety for the free flow of goods, where differences and disputes are settled through peaceful means, where the law is fully respected and observed, and common values are upheld,” he said, according to his remarks published on ASEAN’s website.

That message was reinforced during videoconferences between ASEAN leaders and their counterparts from other Indo-Pacific nations, including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

“Given our significant maritime interests, we affirm our shared view that our region’s prosperity and security relies on the peaceful use of seas and oceans, including the right of all states to freedom of navigation,” noted a joint statement issued after the second ASEAN-Australia Biennial Summit on November 14.