General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of Vietnam H.E. Nguyen Phu Trong opened the first session of the 37th ASEAN Summit on the morning of 12 November by emphasizing the spirit of a cohesive and responsive ASEAN, the theme of Vietnam’s ASEAN chairmanship. Vietnam’s Prime Minister H.E. Nguyen Xuan Phuc also spoke on the need for multilateral collaboration in tackling unprecedented challenges of a global health crisis and regional instability.
The initial sessions of the Summit revolved around regional COVID-19 response and recovery plans, resulting in the endorsement of the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework by ASEAN leaders on 12 November. The Summit will then pivot to discussions around regional stability and solidarity between ASEAN and its international partners with the hope of early completion of the Code of Conduct (COC) for all activities in the South China Sea in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea.
In terms of U.S. participation and representation in past ASEAN Leaders Summits, President Trump had only participated once in the 2017 summit and has sent representatives every year since. In 2019, the U.S. was represented by National Security Advisor Robert O’ Brien, who will do so again this year. “We are deeply disappointed by the Trump Administration’s repeated decision to have neither the President, Vice President nor a Cabinet Member lead the U.S. delegation to these critical Summits in the last two years.”, said Alexander Feldman, Chairman, President & CEO of the US-ASEAN Business Council. “Showing up matters. High-level representation not only reaffirms the U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific and ASEAN, but as a Pacific nation, the United States has an obligation to help forge a free and open Indo-Pacific for all.”
This year’s summit will enable 15 Asian nations to successfully conclude an eight-year negotiating process and officially sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. “US-ABC salutes the RCEP signatories for continuing to focus on trade, despite the challenges imposed by the global pandemic”, added Feldman. Once it goes into force, RCEP, based on a framework developed by ASEAN’s ten economic ministers, will become the world’s largest free trade agreement encompassing roughly 30% of global GDP and over one-third of the world’s population.
Trade is alive and well in Southeast Asia. In addition to RCEP, ASEAN member states are using bilateral and plurilateral trade agreements to revitalize their economies. This is one of many reasons why experts forecast Southeast Asian economies to have some of the strongest V-shaped economic recoveries in the world in 2021, with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) projecting the region to grow by 5% next year.