Vietnam on Friday warned the virus pandemic had swept away years of economic gains as Southeast Asian leaders met online for a summit that will also be dominated by anxiety over Beijing’s moves in the flashpoint South China Sea.
The current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also wants to use the summit to inject momentum into talks on a sprawling China-backed trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
A deal, which aimed to loop in half the world’s population and a third of its GDP, has been hampered by India’s refusal to join over access to its market for cheap goods from China, the regional superpower it is now locked in a deadly border row with.
The immediate focus for the 10-member bloc is the crippling cost of the coronavirus, which has ravaged the economies of tourism and export-reliant countries such as Thailand and Vietnam.
A special ASEAN meeting convened in April to tackle the pandemic failed to agree on an emergency fund.
Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc gave a sobering opening address on Friday that emphasized the “serious consequences” of the pandemic for economic development among ASEAN’S members.
“It has swept away the successes of recent years … threatening the lives of millions of people,” he said.
There is also increasing angst that the virus and its fallout has provided cover for China to make new plays in the South China Sea, the resource-rich waterway Beijing claims most of but is also contested by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan.
China is always advancing its pieces on the “South China Sea chessboard,” said a senior Southeast Asian diplomat. “So it’s not out of the blue that they’re doing it during this crisis.”
Beijing took advantage of the Asian financial crisis in the late 90s and the SARS outbreak to push its claims, he added. “If there is a space, they move.”
Without directly mentioning China, Phuc admitted that “strategic problems between big countries had become clear and had deepened.”
“While the world is trying its best to fight the pandemic, there were irresponsible acts, violating international laws, that affected the security and stability of some regions including ours,” he said.
In April Vietnam accused Beijing of sinking a trawler, prompting the United States to warn it was “exploiting the distraction” of other states “to expand its unlawful claims.”
Vietnam expert Carl Thayer, an academic at the University of New South Wales, believes the past few months have been “business as usual” for China, but noted that negotiations on a so-called Code of Conduct for the South China Sea had stalled because of the virus.
“It needs to be restarted,” he said.