The 36th ASEAN summit took place via videoconference with leaders and high-level politicians convening virtually. Here’s how the media covered the story as Vietnam played host to a very different event.
Vietnam’s senior officials had hoped to host face-to-face meetings and discussions as usual before the coronavirus pandemic left no option but to convene virtually for the 2020 ASEAN summit.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc opened the summit with what Asia Times called a “sobering” opening address. Speaking about the pandemic, he said: “It has swept away the successes of recent years…threatening the lives of millions of people.”
COVID-19 and the South China Sea dominated discussions
High on the agenda were discussions about how best to help the region recover from the impact of COVID-19. The Jakarta Post featured an editorial, also republished in The Straits Times, urging all parties to cooperate and help each other—no matter how badly the coronavirus affected their citizens. “Indonesia’s state response may be to blame for the country’s continued high rate of transmission, but ASEAN can certainly do more to ensure that none of its member states are left behind,” it read.
The Star highlighted Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s proposals to share technology, treatments and vaccines as well as continue trade flows in the meantime. He also invited other nations to use Singapore’s contact tracing app.
Meanwhile, the South China Sea, where China stands accused of taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to further its territorial claims, was once again a hot topic. Writing before the summit got underway, The South China Morning Post’s Bhavan Jaipragas predicted: “ASEAN leaders gathering on Friday will publicly play up their plans for post-coronavirus recovery efforts, but behind closed doors much of their focus will be on disputes over the South China Sea, analysts believe.”
While Vietnam is reportedly keen to push back against Chinese activity in the region, they will have to do so without the support of Cambodia. Before the summit began, The Khmer Times confirmed that Cambodia’s representatives would maintain a neutral position, while hoping all parties could agree on a code of conduct for the sea.
Nevertheless, soon after the event, Vietnam Plus carried quotes by Phuc, who believed the summit was a success as it “has reaffirmed the ASEAN’s determination to build the East Sea into a sea of cooperation, development, security and safety.”
Leaders brought forward other ideas and issues
Some leaders used the opportunity to focus on other issues or bring forward new ideas. Indonesian President Joko Widodo proposed a “travel corridor” between Southeast Asian nations. Apriza Pinandita, writing for The Jakarta Post, commented, “Jokowi claimed the travel corridor would demonstrate ASEAN’s strategic value to the world, adding that the region should also facilitate digital connectivity through e-commerce, e-health and e-learning.”
Meanwhile, The Edge Markets focused on Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin using the platform as the chance to condemn Israel’s latest plans to annex Palestinian land in the Middle East. “The illegal and unilateral action by Israel clearly calls into question its sincerity towards a peaceful and lasting solution to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said.
Free Malaysia Today reported that he also called for any COVID-19 vaccine developed in the region to remain affordable and accessible to all and backed Indonesia’s idea of a travel corridor. He also hoped for a peaceful solution to the maritime disputes with China. “In these times of adversity, it is imperative that we intensify efforts to build, maintain and enhance mutual trust and confidence for the benefit of our region and peoples,” he said.
Unity in the face of COVID-19 dominated the summit
Such calls for unity in the face of the pandemic were repeated throughout the summit with Indonesia among those pushing to finalize the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as soon as possible. “The RCEP will be our new strength and hope for economic recovery in the region after the pandemic,” said President Widodo, according to The Jakarta Post.
An op-ed in The Bangkok Post lauded the comments from the region’s leaders while pointing out there is still a lot of work to do. Acknowledging that divisive issues such as the South China Sea, the plight of the Rohingya and the US-China trade war could stand in the way of progress, it concluded: “To achieve their lofty goals, ASEAN leaders must go beyond diplomatic rhetoric, transform it into action and ensure sustainability.”
As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen put it, as quoted by The Star, “Truly, this is not the time for playing a blame game, discriminating, or disengaging the allies based on political agendas.”