Asian bloc weighs joint fund to fight Covid-19

Moon Jae-in: “South Korea will secure additional funding for humanitarian assistance and respond to the fullest extent possible to any calls for help from other countries, including Asean.”

BANGKOK: South-East Asian nations pledged to keep regional supply chains open and along with Japan, China and South Korea will pursue the establishment of a fund dedicated to fighting the coronavirus across the region.

The 13-nation summit of the Asean on Tuesday came as the region struggles to contain the Covid-19 outbreak even after it spread to other parts of the globe. During a morning summit between Asean leaders, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha proposed re-purposing funds to support efforts to deal with the ongoing threat, Thailand government spokeswoman Narumon Pinyosinwat said.

While the value of the proposed fund was not made clear, the money would go toward the procurement of test kits, personal protective equipment and medical tools, as well as to support research and development in medicines and vaccines, she said.

Prayuth “emphasised that no country could fight against the threat alone, ” she said.

Many of South-East Asia’s biggest economies have been shut down amid the pandemic, with Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand imposing a range of contrainment measures.

Indonesia, which has more than 4,500 confirmed cases, this week said it was expanding a partial lockdown to areas outside of Jakarta.

In a concluding statement, the body said it supported “reallocating existing available funds” and encouraged “technical and financial support from Asean’s partners to facilitate cooperation against Covid-19, ” including a virus response fund.

After the summit, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said his country would secure additional financing, trying to utilise the pre-existing Asean-Republic of Korea Cooperation Fund, Asian Development Bank trusts and money pooled at the so-called “Asean Plus Three” level with China and Japan.

“Korea will secure additional funding for humanitarian assistance and respond to the fullest extent possible to any calls for help from other countries, including Asean, ” Moon said.

Japanese leader Shinzo Abe said he had proposed setting up an Asean infectious disease response centre, and that all the participating countries had agreed, without elaborating.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang -- who is leading a group of high-level officials fighting the virus -- didn’t mention the emergency fund explicitly.

However, he did suggest in a statement that all the countries should demonstrate the grouping’s role in fighting the epidemic and “revitalising the economy, ” while sending “a message of partnership, solidarity and mutual assistance among East Asian countries to boost confidence in our region and beyond.”

Food security

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte – whose country has the highest number of cases in South_East Asia – offered his support for Thailand’s proposal, calling the situation to “an unfolding catastrophe” in which the region should fast-track cooperation with partners.

“Our present challenge transcends borders and exempts no one, ” he said.

Regional food security has become an urgent priority, particularly with regards to ensuring a sufficient supply of rice, he added.

Malaysian Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin also called for an urgent meeting of regional economic ministers to draft a recovery plan that would address concerns about food and education, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, the country’s foreign minister, said in a tweet.

Vietnam, which holds Asean’s rotating chair, reported on Tuesday that virus cases in South-East Asian countries neared 20,000, with more than 880 confirmed deaths as of April 13, according to Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.

Reeling from the growing number of cases, Asean’s economic growth this year is also set to fall to 1% from 4.7%, Marsudi said. The body has had to cancel, postpone or modify 235 meetings to date.

Even as the regional grouping met virtually with China, Japan and South Korea, a Chinese official in Beijing separately disputed Vietnam’s reiteration of claims over the Spratly and Paracel islands.

Vietnam accused China of sinking a fishing boat in a contested area earlier this month, the latest in a long series of confrontations.

“Vietnam’s claim of the islands in the South China Sea is against international laws, including the UN charter and UNCLOS –- it is invalid, ” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Tuesday, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China said that Asean had become its biggest trading partner bloc, surpassing the European Union.

That’s partly due to the effect of Brexit but also an increasing regional semiconductor trade, Li Kuiwen, China’s customs administration spokesman, said at a press conference in Beijing. — Bloomberg

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