HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Southeast Asia’s top diplomats are holding their annual talks by video Wednesday to discuss the immense crisis wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and rising tensions in the South China Sea amid the escalating rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations ministerial meetings have been delayed by a month and were being held online due to continuing health risks posed by COVID-19. The 10-nation bloc’s foreign ministers will meet Asian and Western counterparts, including those from the U.S. and China, for talks later in the week, capped by an annual security forum.
Vietnam, which has seen a resurgence in COVID-19 infections, is hosting the talks as this year’s chairman of the diverse group. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc called for regional solidarity amid the headwinds in an austere opening ceremony attended by a few dozen diplomats in the capital Hanoi.
“The valuable fruits of our cooperation are being tested in an environment full of volatility and unprecedented challenges, especially the COVID-19 pandemic,” Phuc said.
“The regional geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape including the South China Sea are witnessing volatilities that endanger peace and stability,” he said.
The pandemic has delayed or cancelled dozens of meetings and shut out the colorful ceremonies, group handshakes and photo-ops that have been the trademark of ASEAN’s annual gatherings.
Vietnamese deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Dung told reporters earlier this week that the talks would continue to focus on a regional response to the pandemic and ways to help member states recover economically. The contagion has devastated the region’s manufacturing, export, travel and tourism industries and sparked the worst economic recessions in decades across the region of 650 million people.
Southeast Asian nations have been impacted by the pandemic differently, with hard-hit Philippines grappling with more than 240,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections, including nearly 4,000 deaths, and the tiny socialist state of Laos reporting just 22 cases. The Philippines and Indonesia each have more than double the infections counted in China, where the outbreak started late last year.
A key project is establishing a COVID-19 response fund to help ASEAN member states buy 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, according to a senior Southeast Asian diplomat.
A regional stockpile of medical supplies has also been approved, and a study to be financed by Japan will research the possibility of establishing an ASEAN center on public health emergencies.
A long-thorny issue on the agenda is the territorial disputes in the South China Sea involving China, Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
In July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that Washington regards virtually all of China’s maritime claims in the disputed offshore region outside of its internationally recognized waters to be illegitimate. Although it remains neutral in territorial disputes, the Trump administration was in effect siding with the four ASEAN claimant states, along with Indonesia, which have all opposed China’s claims to virtually the entire waterway.
China then accused the U.S. of sowing discord in the strategic region and last month, its military reportedly test-fired two missiles in the South China Sea during exercises.
At the ASEAN Regional Forum on Saturday, Pompeo and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, have confirmed their attendance to Asia’s largest security forum, which will also be done by video. North Korea’s foreign minister will skip the forum but its representative to the ASEAN will participate, according to Vietnam’s foreign ministry.
Associated Press journalists Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, and Kiko Rosario in Bangkok contributed to this report.