The 37th ASEAN Summit, which ended on November 15, saw member states adopt decisive and concrete measures to bolster internal and external cooperation and to overcome major challenges facing the regional bloc, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ASEAN summit and related summits were held online this month as many countries faced COVID-19 outbreaks, though the pandemic remains contained in the summit host country, Vietnam, with no new community transmissions for over 70 days.
The leaders of the participating nations reached broad consensus on important steps to foster growth in the ASEAN community and to create new drivers for ASEAN relations with external partners. The summit reaffirmed the bloc’s strong commitment to multilateral cooperation, economic connectivity and liberalization.
“We have shared our respective views on emerging regional and international issues,” Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said at an international press conference after the 37th ASEAN Summit on November 15. “It is agreed that we must maintain and build upon ASEAN centrality, promote dialogue and cooperation, prevent conflicts, build confidence and shape a regional architecture that is open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based.”
Broad measures and initiatives adopted
At the 37th ASEAN Summit, the regional leaders adopted the Mid-term Review of the ASEAN Community Blueprints 2025, agreed to review the implementation of the ASEAN Charter, and voiced determination to promote subregional cooperation as an integral part of the ASEAN development process, so that all citizens and localities are empowered to contribute to the regional community.
The summit also adopted the Hanoi Declaration on the ASEAN Community’s Post-2025 Vision, aiming to create a solid foundation for the road ahead for the ASEAN community. Under the declaration, leaders of ASEAN member states agreed to develop a Post-2025 Vision in a comprehensive, pragmatic, balanced, inclusive and coordinated manner. The leaders pledged to take a whole-of-community approach to synergize efforts across the ASEAN Community Pillars and among its sectoral bodies to address the increasing complexity of opportunities and challenges facing ASEAN.
With a view to an ASEAN community with a rich identity, the leaders of ASEAN endorsed the flying of the ASEAN flag and the use of the ASEAN anthem to bring the image of ASEAN closer to the region’s people. They adopted the Narrative of ASEAN Identity and the Hanoi Declaration on Strengthening Social Work towards Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN Community. The first-ever ASEAN Women Leaders’ Summit was also organized, offering a valuable opportunity for ASEAN women to contribute to efforts for sustainable development and growth in the region.
Amid COVID-19, ASEAN has announced and established many regional initiatives on cooperation in response to the pandemic as well as the risk of future epidemics. These initiatives include the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, the ASEAN Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies for Public Health Emergencies, and the ASEAN Center for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases. Vietnam will contribute US$5 million to the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, according to an address by Prime Minister Phuc at the 37th ASEAN Summit.
ASEAN also adopted the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework. Accordingly, the regional grouping has identified five broad strategies for recovery to safeguard lives and livelihoods and build resilience, namely by enhancing health systems, strengthening human security, maximizing the ASEAN economic integration, accelerating inclusive digital transformation, and advancing towards a more sustainable and resilient future.
ASEAN has also mapped out the road to recovery and stability through policy measures and responses focused on resilient recovery. These measures include financing for recovery and resource mobilization, institutional and governance mechanisms, stakeholder engagement and partnerships, and monitoring of ASEAN’s pandemic recovery.
World’s biggest trade pact inked
To broaden and deepen relations with its partners, ASEAN agreed to expand its Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) to include Colombia, Cuba and South Africa, bringing the total number of signatories to 43.
The 15th East Asia Summit (EAS), which convened on November 15, also saw leaders adopt important declarations, including the Declaration on the 15th Anniversary of EAS and the Declaration of APT (ASEAN Plus Three) Leaders on Strengthening Economic and Financial Resilience in the Face of Emerging Challenges. The declarations show the role and strength of APT as a framework for preventing and addressing risks of economic and financial crisis in the region.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was also signed, by ASEAN and its partners, including Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. The RCEP is a “very admirable expression”, Phuc stated, of the region’s strong commitment to promoting economic liberalization and connectivity.
The RCEP, now the world’s biggest trade pact, covers a market of 2.2 billion people, or almost 30% of the world’s population, with a combined GDP of US$26.2 trillion or about 30% of global GDP. The markets covered by the RCEP account for nearly 28% of global trade. The pact will improve market access by eliminating tariffs and quotas for over 65% of goods and by making business predictable. Common rules of origin and transparent regulations will encourage investment in the region, building supply chains and services and generating jobs.
Aside from the specific provisions that cover trade and investment, RCEP also includes chapters on intellectual property, electronic commerce, competition, small and medium enterprises, economic and technical cooperation, and government procurement.
“The signing of the RCEP Agreement is a historic event as it underpins ASEAN’s role in leading a multilateral trade agreement of this magnitude, despite global and regional challenges and eight years of negotiations,” said ASEAN Secretary-General Dato Lim Jock Hoi. “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,” he added.
According to the Joint Leaders’ Statement on the RCEP, the RCEP Agreement is the most ambitious free trade agreement initiated by ASEAN and contributes to enhancing ASEAN centrality in regional frameworks and strengthening ASEAN cooperation with regional partners.
“We are committed to ensuring that RCEP remains an open and inclusive agreement. Further, we would highly value India’s role in RCEP and reiterate that the RCEP remains open to India… The RCEP Agreement is open for accession by India from the date of entry into force of the agreement,” read the statement.
Vietnam lauded for role in summit
Prior to the 37th ASEAN Summit and related summits, ASEAN leaders met under Vietnam’s chairmanship for three online summits in 2020: the Special ASEAN Summit and the Special ASEAN Plus Three Summit on April 14, and the 36th ASEAN Summit on June 26.
“Vietnam’s chairmanship of ASEAN this year has been exemplary,” said Dato Lim Jock Hoi. “In spite of having to deal with its domestic COVID-19 challenges and natural disasters, Vietnam has provided able leadership in keeping the region cohesive and responsive to these challenges, placing ASEAN Centrality and the peoples’ interest at the core.”
New Zealand has also noted Vietnam’s role as ASEAN Chair for 2020, especially amid the challenging and unusual circumstances, according to Alison Mann, New Zealand’s senior official for APEC, the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN. Vietnam’s priority of advancing a “Cohesive and Responsive” ASEAN is especially appropriate given the current challenges posed by COVID-19 in particular, she stressed.
Vietnam chose the theme “Cohesive and Responsive” for ASEAN 2020. “Cohesive” represents the idea of upholding the unity, solidarity and internal strength of ASEAN. This means increasing economic connectivity, deepening ASEAN values and identities, and enhancing the efficiency of the bloc while promoting ASEAN’s partnerships in the global community. “Responsive” reflects the ASEAN’s need to increase its proactiveness, creativity and responsiveness in the face of global and regional opportunities and challenges.
Phuc noted that Vietnam is fully confident that Brunei, as the next ASEAN chair, will continue to lead the region onwards and forge an ASEAN community endowed with a vision for broad connectivity, active adaptability, comprehensive recovery, and sustainable development. Brunei will assume the role in 2021 under the theme “We care, we prepare, we prosper”.
Professor Liu Ying, an expert in trade and international relations from Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at the Renmin University of China noted that Vietnam has played an important role during its term as the rotating chair of ASEAN by organizing, coordinating and leading activities of the bloc. Vietnam has made efforts to ensure ASEAN meetings take place safely, contributing to the group’s development across the spheres of economics, trade, politics and health, she stated.