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Post-pandemic recovery, security high on ASEAN summit agenda

Visitors select products during the 17th China-ASEAN Expo at Nanning International Convention and Exhibition Center in Nanning, south China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, Nov 30, 2020. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

BANGKOK – When leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and their dialogue partners meet virtually this week, high on the agenda will be the joint efforts for a post-pandemic recovery as countries recently began to reopen their economies and borders following the receding of the COVID-19 outbreak.

As this year marks the 30th anniversary of China-ASEAN dialogue relations, expectations are also high that the upcoming summits would herald a new chapter for the relationship, which has grown from strength to strength and weathered difficulties and challenges, including the pandemic.

Seek post-pandemic recovery

The series of meetings, scheduled from Tuesday to Thursday, will be held under the chairmanship of Brunei with the theme "We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper."

Brunei has outlined a number of deliverables for the ASEAN agenda based on the three pillars of ASEAN community building, namely political-security community, economic community and social-cultural community, including on strengthening ASEAN response to emergencies and disasters, upholding multilateralism, post-pandemic recovery, procurement of vaccines, among others.

According to the Thai foreign ministry, discussions at the summits will focus on promoting cooperation to address COVID-19 and its impacts, post-COVID-19 recovery, ASEAN Community building, as well as key regional and global developments.

"The pandemic will be high on the agenda and we will see a great push towards economic cooperation and also to create travel bubbles within ASEAN to kickstart the flow of business cooperation and more importantly tourism," said Azmi Hassan, a Malaysian political analyst.

"Currently, ASEAN members are working on creating bilateral travel bubbles but I believe they will discuss this as an organization during the summit so that this can be implemented across the bloc," he said.

"On economic matters, they will be working out ideas and strategies to try and bring economic activity back to pre-pandemic levels."

Lee Pei May, a political expert at the International Islamic University Malaysia, said ASEAN leaders need to address the highly uneven progress of vaccination in the region, which can affect the region's economic recovery.

As countries begin to open their borders for business and travel, countries with low vaccination coverage might not receive many visitors or might experience surges in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Such a situation could contribute to divergent recoveries, with some countries forging ahead and some being left behind.

Lee Pei May,

political expert at the International Islamic University Malaysia

"This highly uneven progress is worrying. As countries begin to open their borders for business and travel, countries with low vaccination coverage might not receive many visitors or might experience surges in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Such a situation could contribute to divergent recoveries, with some countries forging ahead and some being left behind," she said.

Enhance China-ASEAN ties

Apart from the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits, leaders of the ASEAN dialogue partners, namely China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, the United States, Russia and New Zealand, among others, will also join their ASEAN counterparts in the related summits, which would provide a platform for greater cooperation for recovery in the East Asia region.

Although countries mainly feel the negative impacts of the pandemic, it also provides opportunities for reflection on how to undertake development differently in the future, said Lee.

"Therefore, ASEAN and its dialogue partners should not just focus on making the economy bounce back quicker but on building a more resilient and sustainable economy that can cushion against future crises," she said, adding that ASEAN and its dialogue partners can help those members left behind in the vaccination drive.

Among the dialogue partners, ASEAN countries will look to China to fuel their economic recovery, said Azmi, pointing out that China could be a great example of how COVID-19 can be contained while bringing economic activity back in full force.

"ASEAN as a whole is looking keenly towards China for its own economic revitalization," he said.

The relationship between China and ASEAN has emerged even stronger as both sides came to each other's aid since the pandemic.

To date, China has provided all ASEAN member states with over 300 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines and a great number of emergency medical supplies, making up an indispensable part for the region to build up the immunization barrier.

The economic relationship between China and ASEAN has bucked the trend to a new height despite the pandemic, as ASEAN becomes China's largest trading partner.

In the first three quarters of this year, China-ASEAN trade totaled 630.54 billion US dollars, up by 31.1 percent year-on-year. The two-way investment has been booming and exceeded 310 billion US dollars as of June this year in cumulative terms.

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Meanwhile, both ASEAN members and partners hope the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a mega trade deal between 10 ASEAN member states plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand which was signed last November, will take effect soon to promote regional trade and investment, thus helping with the post-pandemic economic recovery in the region.

Deng Xijun, Chinese Ambassador to ASEAN, noted in a written interview with Xinhua that China was the first non-ASEAN member to complete ratification of RCEP, which demonstrates China's firm support to ASEAN centrality.

"China will continue fully cooperating with ASEAN to have the RCEP take effect as scheduled early next year," he said.

Safeguard regional peace, security

Analysts also expect some regional issues will be raised during the summits, including the situation in Myanmar as well as the recently announced security partnership between Australia, Britain and the United States to supply the Australian navy with nuclear-powered submarines.

AUKUS has triggered widespread concerns across the region, including those from ASEAN members like Malaysia and Indonesia that it would raise tensions and confrontations, cause nuclear proliferation, impact ASEAN centrality and disrupt cooperation, which is crucial for recovery in the region.

While the United States is increasingly forcing ASEAN members into camps, experts said China could help strengthen ASEAN centrality and continue to play a positive role in maintaining peace and security in the region.

"I think China could create economic momentum and not behave like the United States…They (ASEAN countries) will be looking at the real benefits of Chinese economic power versus the supposed benefits of the US, British and Australian military power," said Azmi.

As China and ASEAN celebrate the great success of three decades of dialogue relations, the expectations are high that the summit could usher in a new chapter for the bilateral ties in the next 30 years.

On the 30th anniversary of China-ASEAN dialogue relations, we can see how far the relationship has come and indeed for the most part it has been a beneficial, two-way win-win for economic growth.

Azmi Hassan, 

Malaysian political analyst

At the China-ASEAN Summit last year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang proposed to take the 30th anniversary of dialogue relations as an opportunity and elevate China-ASEAN relations to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which was echoed actively by ASEAN leaders, said Deng, Chinese ambassador to ASEAN.

"Since then, we have had in-depth discussions with ASEAN on the concept and cooperation areas of this initiative and reached broad consensus. The leaders will further exchange ideas on this initiative in the summit this year," he said.

READ MORE: China-ASEAN cooperation to intensify

"On the 30th anniversary of China-ASEAN dialogue relations, we can see how far the relationship has come and indeed for the most part it has been a beneficial, two-way win-win for economic growth. China's economic prosperity and rise as a global manufacturing hub and import-export hub have had a positive spillover into the ASEAN region," said Azmi.

"China is our northern neighbor, economically and geographically close to us and it only makes sense that both sides continue to deepen their ties and integration," he said.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. China and ASEAN established dialogue relations in 1991.