Attracting global attention . . .
The 37th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, which concluded yesterday, took place virtually and was chaired by Vietnam. The Summit is a biannual meeting held by ASEAN members to discuss economic, political, security, and socio-cultural issues facing member countries and strengthen regional cooperation. This iteration drew broad global attention as it provided the stage for the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which has become the world’s largest trade pact. China, central to RCEP, demonstrated its commitment to ASEAN with a promise of priority access to COVID-19 vaccines for member states.
Economic recovery . . .
Beyond RCEP, ASEAN members released the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework as their ‘exit strategy’ from the COVID-19 crisis. The framework comprises five broad strategies on health systems, human security, economic integration within ASEAN, inclusive digital transformation, and a resilient and sustainable future. Additionally, ASEAN members, along with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, called for a commitment to ‘vaccine multilateralism’ and pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to both the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund and the newly-established ASEAN Center for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (AC-PHEED). ASEAN members also discussed a regional travel corridor, but such an initiative's feasibility remains foggy due to uneven pandemic prevalence among ASEAN members.
Brunei as 2021 ASEAN Chair . . .
2020 has been a turbulent year for ASEAN as the COVID-19 crisis and great power rivalry have challenged the effectiveness and centrality of ASEAN as a regional institution. Although the South China Sea Code of Conduct, which several member states hoped would curb Chinese naval expansion, was high on the agenda of the 36th Summit in June, members de-emphasized the issue during this latest meeting. The geopolitical situation in the region is delicate, and the China-focused RCEP adds yet more complexity. While the incoming Biden Administration's priorities towards ASEAN remain unclear, Brunei’s task as the 2021 ASEAN Chair promises to be a challenging one in a rapidly-evolving geopolitical environment.