ASEAN virus fund, sea feud in spotlight in virtual summit

ASEAN virus fund, sea feud in spotlight in virtual summit


HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — 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...

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