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Asean talks begin with pandemic, S. China Sea, Rohingya on agenda

(Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh chairs a video meeting with other Asean foreign ministers in Hanoi on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters)

HANOI, (AFP):- The foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations started their annual meeting on Wednesday with the coronavirus pandemic, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and Rohingya refugees high on the agenda.

Asean-related gatherings running through Saturday are being held via videoconference due to the pandemic, which has made international travel difficult. They were originally scheduled for early August in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, which is the regional group’s chair this year.

In his opening remarks, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said decades-long cooperation among Asean members is “being tested in an environment full of volatilities and unprecedented challenges, particularly the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Cohesiveness and responsiveness among the members, however, have “enabled us to stand hand in hand to face immense challenges and keep forging ahead,” Phuc said, adding they have been shown over the past eight months since virus outbreaks intensified.

The pandemic will likely dominate the day’s talks, as underlined in a draft joint communique that was seen by Kyodo News and is to be issued at the end of the one-day meeting.

In the draft, the ministers acknowledge “a severe and multidimensional impact” from the pandemic on the region through such challenges as widespread supply chain disruptions, job losses and demand shocks.

But the ministers also express optimism about a quick recovery from the pandemic’s fallout due to member countries’ “strong mettle and self-reliance” and support from their partners outside Asean.

Phuc, in his remarks, proposed making use of a regional Covid-19 response fund and the Asean Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies established after Asean leaders agreed in April to help procure crucial medical supplies and equipment for frontline response and prevention efforts in all member states.

“We need to promptly help our people and businesses restore production and return their life to normal in order to speed up economic recovery,” the prime minister told the foreign ministers via video link.

One of the issues likely to be discussed at the talks is the South China Sea, where tensions have risen since the United States’ recent formal rejection of China’s claims to offshore resources in most of the waters.

The sea is home to some of the world’s busiest sea lanes. China has in recent years built artificial islands with military infrastructure, much to the consternation of some Asean countries with overlapping claims.

While not fully agreed upon, a portion of the draft communique mentions the foreign ministers’ “concerns on land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the South China Sea.”

The statement says these developments “have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”

The draft also touches on Rohingya Muslims sheltering in some Asean countries after fleeing Myanmar’s western Rakhine State to neighboring Bangladesh to escape a military crackdown on insurgents.

Since August 2017, over 740,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh. International efforts to repatriate them have failed so far, as the refugees remain fearful of violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

The foreign ministers’ meeting will be followed by a series of related meetings involving Asean partner countries, such as Japan, China and the United States, with the four-day event culminating in Saturday’s Asean Regional Forum, a security-themed conference that also includes North Korea.

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