HANOI, Vietnam (AP) – Southeast Asian leaders hold an annual video summit Friday to showcase the unit and discuss an emergency regional fund to tame the immense crisis of the coronavirus pandemic. The protracted conflicts in the South China Sea are also in the spotlight.
The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have joined online due to regional travel restrictions and health risks, which have delayed dozens of meetings and shut out the ceremonial spectacles, group handshakes, and photo ops that have been the 10 nation’s trademark. annual top meetings of the block.
Vietnam, the current ASEAN president, had scheduled face-to-face meetings, but most member states still considered it too risky for leaders to travel.
The countries of Southeast Asia have been affected by the pandemic differently: hard-hit Indonesia is struggling with more than 50,000 infections and more than 2,600 deaths, and the small socialist state of Laos reports only 19 cases. However, the diverse region of 650 million people was an Asian COVID-19 hotspot, with a combined total of more than 138,000 confirmed cases far exceeding that of China where the outbreak began.
The economic toll has been tough, with ASEAN’s leading economies, including Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, experiencing one of their worst recessions in decades.
“We recognized the significant costs and unprecedented challenges for the region and the world due to the pandemic of the coronavirus disease,” said Vietnam on behalf of ASEAN states in a draft communiqué issued after Friday’s summit.
“We saw with great concern the human and socio-economic costs caused by COVID-19 and remained committed to implementing targeted policies to build confidence that ASEAN is at the forefront of this critical battle.”
A high priority project would be the creation of an ASEAN COVID-19 response fund, which could be used to assist Member States in purchasing medical supplies and protective suits. Thailand has pledged to contribute $ 100,000 and ASEAN partners, including China, Japan and South Korea, were expected to announce contributions after the fund’s terms were recently finalized, a senior Southeast Asian diplomat told The Associated Press.
A regional supply of medical supplies has also been proposed and the group will conduct a study to be funded by Japan into the possibility of setting up an ASEAN center for public health emergencies, the diplomat said, on condition that anonymity spoke because of a lack of authority to speak in public.
Although the Conservative bloc has attempted to bring about unity, it has been driven by protracted rivalries and disputes, particularly in the South China Sea, involving mainly four of its members – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei – against the overlapping claims of China on one of the world’s busiest waterway. It is also a crucial battlefield for influence from Beijing and Washington.
The ongoing disputes, along with the plight of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar languishing in crowded refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, are among the most thorny issues on the ASEAN agenda.
“We underlined the importance of non-militarization and self-control in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, which could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea,” the draft said. ASEAN communiqué.
China has come under attack for what, according to competing rivals, are aggressive actions in the disputed waters as countries rushed to tackle the viral outbreaks. Vietnam protested in April after a Chinese coastguard ship rammed a boat and sunk eight fishermen off the Paracel Islands. The Philippines supported Vietnam and protested new territorial districts announced by China in large samples of the sea.
Washington also lashed out at China, denying allegations that it exploited the intense preoccupation with the pandemic to bring up its territorial claims as “sheer nonsense.”
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines and Edna Tarigan in Jakarta, Indonesia contributed to this report.
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