ASEAN leaders tackle vital security, economic concerns

Published October 27, 2021, 12:03 AM

by Manila Bulletin

The virtual summit of Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) leaders began on Oct. 26 minus one participant. Myanmar’s junta chief had been excluded on account of the regime’s inability to comply with the five-point consensus plan drawn up last April after the unexpected ouster of its erstwhile leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

US President Joseph Biden’s presence has raised expectations on a renewal of American involvement after a four-year absence.  As he focused on overseeing the containment of COVID-19 and the approval of his agenda for domestic economic recovery, he fielded Vice President Kamala Harris, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman — to visit ASEAN member states.

Aside from conveying the vectors of US foreign policy in the region, he is expected to engage the ASEAN leaders in discussions on regional security, following the recent launching of the AUKUS alliance that was forged recently with Australia and the United Kingdom.  China has remarked that this “aims to undermine the ASEAN-centered regional cooperation architecture with the outdated Cold War mentality and compromise regional prosperity and stability.” President Biden is expected to reaffirm the US’ support to its allies and partners such that, as Vice President Harris said recently in Singapore, they would not have to “choose between the US and China.”

China has been quite active in economic diplomacy, through vaccine donations and other COVID-related assistance, but has also not relaxed its high-profile presence in the South China Sea. The long-delayed adoption of the ASEAN Code of Conduct continues at a snail’s pace with only a draft preamble expected to emerge within the near future.

Higher hopes are pinned on ASEAN’s robust agenda on economic cooperation, particularly the ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP), potentially the world’s largest trade pact involving Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea — but this awaits action by six member-states plus three others.

The continuing threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge the resilience and recovery capabilities of most member countries as they endeavor to safely reopen their economies, starting with an easing of inbound travel and tourism restrictions.

The priority economic deliverables in the ASEAN economic community pillar during Brunei’s chairmanship this year also includes, among others: the ASEAN investment facilitation framework, the launch of negotiations for the ASEAN-Canada Free Trade Agreement, taxonomy on sustainable finance, regional cooperation on minerals, signing of a protocol on financial services, implementation of the norms of responsible state’s behavior in cyberspace, an ASEAN financial literacy conference, energy security and transition, and a framework for support to food, agriculture, and forestry small producers,  cooperatives, and MSMEs to improve product quality to meet regional and international standards and ensure competitiveness.

After this summit, what would stand out is that despite a long-standing policy of non-interference in a member-state’s domestic issues, the ASEAN leaders place a higher priority on its efforts to end violence and restore the once-fragile democracy in Myanmar.

 
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