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South-east Asian leaders meet by video to discuss Covid-19 strategy

The World Health Organisation called on south-east Asian countries last month to ramp up efforts to combat the viral outbreak.


ASEAN leaders attending a summit on Covid-19 (VNA via AP)

ASEAN leaders attending a summit on Covid-19 (VNA via AP)

ASEAN leaders attending a summit on Covid-19 (VNA via AP)

South-east Asian leaders have linked up by video to plot a strategy to overcome the coronavirus crisis which has threatened their economies and kept millions of people in their homes under lockdown.

The 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held further talks later in the day, also through video conferencing, with counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea, who expressed support in helping fight the coronavirus. Vietnam, ASEAN’s leader this year, has postponed an in-person gathering tentatively until June.

“It is in these grim hours that the solidarity of the ASEAN community shines like a beacon in the dark,” Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said in an opening speech.

Containment efforts have placed the pandemic “actually under control”, he said, warning against complacency, with a number of member countries, including Indonesia and the Philippines, fearing spikes in infections after large-scale testing is conducted.

Founded in 1967 in the Cold War era, ASEAN — a diverse bloc representing more than 640 million people — has held annual summits of its leaders and diplomats with ceremonies steeped in tradition, protocol and photo ops. Derided as a talk shop by critics, the bloc is known largely for photographs of its leaders locking arms at annual meetings in a show of unity despite often-thorny differences.

Diplomats say unity is crucial as the region battles Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. All of ASEAN’s member states have been hit by infections, with the total number of confirmed cases reaching more than 20,400, including over 840 deaths, despite massive lockdowns, travel restrictions and home quarantines.

Chinese premier Li Keqiang said the pandemic has had a severe impact on the global economy, but told fellow leaders that their countries have jointly confronted past crises and have braced for contingencies. “The battle against Covid-19 has made us more aware that we are in a community with a shared future,” he said.

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said Tokyo will help south-east Asia fight the outbreak, including by the establishment of an ASEAN centre for infectious diseases.

South Korea, among the Asian nations battered by the pandemic early, “confronted numerous challenges head-on” and is now gradually heading into a “phase of stabilisation”, President Moon Jae-in said.

Intensive testing and tracing, public co-operation and transparency “have proven to be indispensable in our fight”, he said.

“The Covid-19 crisis is a crisis like no other in the past, not just in its potential calamitous scale but in the hope to contain and stop it by unstinting co-operation and fullest trust between all countries,” said the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs. “If any of us fails, the rest will follow.”

The World Health Organisation last month called on south-east Asian countries to aggressively ramp up efforts to combat the outbreak as infections spread. Several visiting participants of a large religious gathering in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in late February reportedly tested positive for the virus after attending the event.

But Vietnamese foreign minister Pham Binh Minh said ASEAN had responded to the outbreak quickly, with his country, as the bloc’s current leader, calling for the need for region-wide action in mid-February, followed by a series of ministerial meetings and consultations with China, the US and the WHO.

Tuesday’s summit included discussions on a regional stockpile of medical equipment for emergencies and establishing a regional fund for combating the pandemic.

With travel restrictions and lockdowns across the region, many industries have been hit hard, including the tourism and retail sectors, and growth targets have been revised downwards. The overall economic impact of the pandemic on the region will “likely be broad and deep”, according to an ASEAN assessment.

Hard-hit China, where the virus was first detected in December, is one of the largest trading partners and sources of tourists for south-east Asia.

ASEAN holds about 1,500 meetings a year, but around 230 have been postponed to later this year due to the pandemic, including lower-level meetings with China on a proposed non-aggression pact in the disputed South China Sea.

The territorial disputes – which involve China and five other claimants, including ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei – are not part of the formal summit agenda, but the disputes have cast a shadow on the summit after a Vietnamese fishing boat with eight men on board was hit by a Chinese coastguard ship and sank recently near the Paracel islands. All the fishermen were rescued.

The other ASEAN members are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Burma, Singapore and Thailand.