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The 36th ASEAN Summit: Leaders Underscore Unity, Amid Challenges New and Old

08 Jul The 36th ASEAN Summit: Leaders Underscore Unity, Amid Challenges New and Old

In a “new normal”, the leaders of ASEAN countries convened virtually on Friday, 26 June 2020, for the 36th ASEAN Summit. Despite initial responses to the COVID-19 pandemic being disjointed and domestically focused, ASEAN States, cognisant of the deep interlinkages of their economies and people, have begun to tap on their strengths as a region. The ASEAN Summit provided an opportunity to consolidate and reiterate ASEAN’s commitment to cooperation, economic integration, and proactiveness to combat global challenges and seize opportunities.

United efforts in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic

ASEAN states have been impacted by the pandemic variously. However, the economic toll has been heavy on the entire region and indeed, the world. On top of the various efforts at ministerial and working levels to share information and coordinate efforts to combat the coronavirus, ASEAN leaders have announced the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund. This can be used to help member states with the costs of medical supplies. Thailand contributed US$100 000 to the fund and ASEAN dialogue partners, China, Japan and South Korea are expected to announce contributions as well.

In preparation for future pandemics, the ASEAN states have made efforts to establish a regional stockpile of medical supplies, ASEAN Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies (RRMS), and Standard Operating Procedures to further enhance ASEAN’s preparedness and capacity. ASEAN states also committed to a whole-of-ASEAN approach towards recovery.

Divisive issues: South China Sea and the Rakhine State

Oft a thorny issue in ASEAN, the South China Sea dispute not only exposes fault lines in ASEAN, but also presents a crucial proxy in the battle for influence between Beijing and Washington. At the Summit, this issue was discussed at length, and the ASEAN states reiterated the need to rapidly conclude an “effective and substantive” Code of Conduct (COC). ASEAN States also emphasised that the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should form the basis for any activity in oceans and seas, marking a strengthening in the bloc’s assertion of the rule of law in a hotly-contested issue.

Another issue that came to the fore, was the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Rakhine State. Malaysia Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had stressed during the teleconference that Malaysia would not be able deal with any influx of refugees, especially as its resources and capacity have been greatly challenged with the COVID-19 pandemic. ASEAN reaffirmed its support of Myanmar’s ongoing efforts to ensure the safety and security of all communities in the Rakhine region and facilitate the voluntary return of displaced persons in a secure and dignified manner.

“Cohesive and responsive ASEAN”

Looking forward, ASEAN countries reiterated their commitment towards a multilateral, rules-based world order. In the economic sphere, the conclusion of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) was recognised as being critical to transforming the region into a “global ASEAN”, driving post-pandemic recovery and creating resilient supply chains. The ASEAN states expressed hope for the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by the end of the year.

Indeed, in a deeply tumultuous, pandemic-ravaged time, where divisions, mud-slinging and geopolitical tensions dominate, ASEAN has been able to present a model of cooperation and unity, embodying this year’s theme: “Cohesive and responsive ASEAN”.