Southeast Asian leaders are holding an annual summit today, June 26, by video to show unity and discuss a regional emergency fund to tame the immense crisis wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
The long-divisive South China Sea conflicts are also in the spotlight.
The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations linked up online due to regional travel restrictions and health risks, which have delayed dozens of meetings and shut out the ceremonial spectacles, group handshakes and photo-ops that have been the trademark of the 10-nation bloc's annual summits.
Vietnam, the current ASEAN chair, had planned face-to-face meetings, but most member states assessed it was still too risky for leaders to travel. Still, it organized a colorful opening ceremony with traditional songs and dance in Hanoi for about 200 Vietnamese officials and foreign diplomats. They showed up without masks and sat close to each other while the heads of state watched remotely on their screens.
"The COVID-19 pandemic is a test for ASEAN," Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said. He added that the contagion "is fanning the flame of dormant challenges within the scope of political, economic and social environment," and helping escalate frictions among major powers.
Southeast Asian nations have been impacted by the pandemic differently, with hard-hit Indonesia grappling with more than 50,000 infections and more than 2,600 deaths, and the tiny socialist state of Laos reporting just 19 cases. The diverse region of 650 million people, however, has been an Asian COVID-19 hot spot, with a combined total of more than 138,000 confirmed cases that have well surpassed that of China, where the outbreak started.
The economic toll has been severe, with ASEAN's leading economies, including Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, facing one of their most severe recessions in decades.
"We recognized the significant cost and unprecedented challenges to the region and the world caused by the coronavirus disease pandemic," Vietnam says on behalf of ASEAN states in a draft communique to be issued after Friday's summit.
"We noted with grave concern the human and socioeconomic costs caused by COVID-19 and remained committed to implementing targeted policies to instill confidence that ASEAN is at the forefront of this critical battle."
A high-priority project would be the establishment of an ASEAN COVID-19 response fund, which could be used to help member states purchase medical supplies and protective suits. Thailand has pledged to contribute $100,000 and ASEAN partners, including China, Japan and South Korea, were expected to announce contributions after the terms of the fund were recently finalized, a senior Southeast Asian diplomat told The Associated Press.
A regional stockpile of medical supplies has also been proposed and the group will undertake a study to be financed by Japan on the possibility of establishing an ASEAN center on public health emergencies, said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to speak publicly.
While the conservative bloc has tried to project unity, it has been riven by longstanding rivalries and disputes, particularly in the South China Sea that mainly involve four of its members — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — pitted against China's overlapping claims to one of the world's busiest waterway. It's also a crucial battleground for influence by Beijing and Washington.
The lingering disputes, along with the plight of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who are languishing in crowded refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, are among the most thorny issues on the ASEAN agenda.
"We underscored the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, which could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea," the draft ASEAN communique said.
China has come under fire for what rival claimants say are aggressive actions in the disputed waters while countries scrambled to deal with the viral outbreaks. Vietnam protested in April after a Chinese coast guard ship rammed and sank a boat with eight fishermen off the Paracel Islands. The Philippines backed Vietnam and protested new territorial districts announced by China in large swatches of the sea.
Washington also lashed out at China, which denied accusations that it was exploiting the intense preoccupation with the pandemic to advance its territorial claims as "sheer nonsense."
—HAU DINH and YVES VAN DAM with Kiko Rosario, Jim Gomez, and Edna Tarigan