Leaders of ASEAN countries, dialogue partners to meet online with RCEP signing in sight, post-pandemic recovery in focus

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With the 37th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and related meetings to take place from Nov. 12 to Nov. 15 via video conferences, all eyes are on the potential signing of the long-awaited Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

According to Nguyen Quoc Dung, deputy minister of foreign affairs of Vietnam, the ASEAN chair for 2020, the signing of RCEP would take place on Nov. 15 at the RCEP summit if its member countries manage to complete their respective domestic procedures for the signing.

Recovery in the post-COVID-19 era will also be a hot topic in the next few days, as multiple cooperation agreements will be on the table.

Founded in 1967, the ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

RCEP signing in sight

RCEP is a proposed mega trade pact between 10 ASEAN member states and their six free trade partners, namely China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Since its introduction at the 19th ASEAN Summit in November 2011, more than 30 rounds of negotiations and a number of intersessional and ministerial meetings on RCEP have been held.

The negotiation of the deal has now been finalized, and once signed, the deal would boost regional trade, as supply chain was disrupted due to COVID-19, Dung said at a press conference on Monday.

It is believed that RCEP would create the world's largest trading bloc with lower trade barriers and further market access for goods and services, attracting foreign companies to a more integrated ASEAN.

"With RCEP, the ASEAN will continue to become an attractive investment destination and a promising market for partner countries," said Vo Dai Luoc, former head of the Institute of World Economics and Politics under the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.

The deal would also prompt the ASEAN to reform its business environment to meet investors' expectations, thus enhance transparency in trade and investment, Luoc said.

"This is a big statement for trade liberalization and for protecting the open global trading system," said Peter Drysdale, head of East Asian Bureau of Economic Research at Australian National University.

Post-pandemic recovery in focus

Apart from the potential signing of RCEP, the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework and the ASEAN Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies will also be in place during the meetings in a bid to cope with and recover from the impacts of COVID-19.

They will become the latest fruits of months of concerted efforts of ASEAN countries and their dialogue partners in COVID-19 response, which remained a prime topic at the several regional summits since the epidemic outbreak.

"These initiatives demonstrate the spirit of solidarity and cohesion of the ASEAN in joining hands against the pandemic, as during difficult times, it might be easy for member countries to put their own interests first," Luoc said.

Luu Ngoc Trinh, senior researcher at the Center for Strategy and International Security, stressed that the initiatives are necessary despite the assistance of dialogue partners including China for ASEAN countries to overcome the impacts of COVID-19 both in healthcare and economy.

"The countries need to have mechanisms to jointly oversee the implementation of those commitments to ensure their effectiveness," he noted.

ASEAN-China ties to strengthen 

With the ASEAN-China leaders' meeting set to take place on Thursday afternoon, many believe cooperation on post-COVID-19 recovery will take up a bulk of the issues on the table.

"What is most hopeful about the Chinese contribution is probably vaccines and medicines against COVID-19," Luoc said, while praising China's achievements in epidemic prevention and control.

For Nguyen Xuan Cuong, head of the Institute of Chinese Studies, Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, China's contribution to post-pandemic recovery in the region also lies in its efforts along with the ASEAN to facilitate the negotiation and finalization of RCEP.

"Their determination towards the pact's conclusion is particularly meaningful amid COVID-19, which makes it more difficult for regional and global trade," he said.

Luoc echoed the point by referring to China's faith in promoting trade and flow of goods, saying that efforts such as hosting the 3rd China International Import Expo are highly welcomed as they benefit both China and the whole region.

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