The disputed South China Sea, the COVID-19 pandemic and a significant trade deal are likely to dominate discussions.
Southeast Asian leaders kicked off a multilateral summit on Thursday that is expected to address tensions in the South China Sea and tackle plans for a post-pandemic economic recovery in a region where rivalry between the United States and China has been rising.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has so far not been “drawn into the maelstroms” of those rivalries and challenges to the international multilateral system, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said in his opening remarks at the 37th ASEAN Summit in Hanoi, which was held virtually.
“Three-quarters of a century have passed since the end of the Second World War. World peace and security, however, are not yet truly sustainable,” said Phuc, whose government has the chair of the 10-member bloc this year.
“This year, they are particularly under greater threat as a result of compounding risks arising from the unpredictable conduct of states, major power rivalries and frictions,” Phuc said.
High on the summit’s agenda will be tensions in the South China Sea, where Chinese ships have been embroiled in periodic standoffs with vessels from Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia as Beijing seeks to assert its territorial claims in the disputed waterway.
China claims about 80 percent of the sea including large swathes of Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, as well as the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands. Its claim also overlaps the EEZs of ASEAN members Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Since mid-August, the US has repeatedly riled China by sending warships to the South China Sea and has blacklisted 24 Chinese entities over their involvement in building and installing military facilities on these artificial islands.
ASEAN leaders are also expected to map out a strategy to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and chart their economic recovery. In his opening remarks, Muhyiddin Yassin, Malaysia’s prime minister, said that the 10-member organisation needed to work “hand-in-hand” with international agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and other countries to ensure any vaccine is “affordable, accessible and equitably shared by all”.
The group’s leaders will also hold dialogues with key regional partners including Japan, South Korea and China and on Sunday are expected to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a China-backed trade agreement that could become the world’s biggest.
The deal is likely to cement China’s position more firmly as an economic partner in the region, after President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership that was the centrepiece of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia”.