ASEAN coronavirus fund, sea feud in spotlight in virtual summit

ASEAN coronavirus fund, sea feud in spotlight in virtual summit
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a test for ASEAN,” Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said in his address to Southeast Asian summit attendees on June 26, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 26 June 2020

ASEAN coronavirus fund, sea feud in spotlight in virtual summit

ASEAN coronavirus fund, sea feud in spotlight in virtual summit
  • ASEAN link up online due to regional travel restrictions and health risks
  • A high-priority project would be the establishment of an ASEAN COVID-19 response fund

HANOI: Southeast Asian leaders are holding an annual summit Friday 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 thorniest 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.”


Kabul says no impact on security as US reduces troops to 2,500

The Pentagon confirmed the reduction of US troops on Friday in accordance with President Donald Trump administration’s November pledge to cut the number of US forces in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January. (Reuters/File Photo)
The Pentagon confirmed the reduction of US troops on Friday in accordance with President Donald Trump administration’s November pledge to cut the number of US forces in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 26 min 51 sec ago

Kabul says no impact on security as US reduces troops to 2,500

The Pentagon confirmed the reduction of US troops on Friday in accordance with President Donald Trump administration’s November pledge to cut the number of US forces in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Reduction means the lowest level of US forces in Afghanistan since 2001, when the US invaded the country and ousted the Taliban
  • Taliban welcome the US move, describing it as important in the implementation of a historic deal signed by the group and Washington in February

ISLAMABAD: The Afghan National Security Council said on Saturday that the reduction of US forces in the country has no major impact on the security situation, as Washington announced it had met its goal of decreasing the number of troops to 2,500.

The Pentagon confirmed the reduction of US troops on Friday in accordance with President Donald Trump administration’s November pledge to cut the number of US forces in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January.

The troop reduction means the lowest level of American forces in Afghanistan since 2001, when the US invaded the country and ousted the Taliban who ruled Afghanistan from 1996.

“The reduction or increase of the American forces does not have any major negative impact on the fighting situation in Afghanistan,” Maulvi Rahmatullah, spokesman for the Afghan National Security Council, said in a video response to the Pentagon announcement.

However, Afghanistan’s vice president, Amrullah Saleh, said in a BBC interview on Friday that the “pullout risks more violence in the unstable country.”

He added that the American mission, which began 20 years ago, is not yet accomplished and that the US had made a mistake by conceding too much to the Taliban.

The Taliban, meanwhile, have welcomed the US move, describing it as an important step toward the implementation of a historic deal signed by the group and Washington in Doha, Qatar, in February last year, under which all US-led troops would leave Afghanistan within 14 months.

“We consider the decision as a good and effective step toward the implementation of the Doha agreement. We, the Islamic Emirate, are also committed to all sections of the Doha agreement,” Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, told Arab News on Saturday.

He said the Taliban hoped that the Doha agreement would be fully implemented and all American forces would leave Afghanistan in the agreed timeframe.

“We consider withdrawal of the troops and leaving Afghan soil as a positive step for the people of the US and Afghans, and welcome it,” Mujahid said.

While acting US Defense Secretary Chris Miller said on Friday that the US was planning “further reducing US troop levels to zero by May of 2021,” he added that “any such future drawdowns remain conditions-based.”

As the Trump administration ends its term when President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Wednesday, there have been few clues about what the new US government plans are for Afghanistan.