Perhaps the remarkable thing about last week's Asean Ministerial Meetings that brought the 10 South-east Asian states together with key interlocutors including the United States, China and Japan was that they were held at all. Covid-19 has afflicted South-east Asia to various degrees - a health emergency that has pinned down already slowing economies. All this has been complicated by the most dire geopolitical situation of our time as the US confronts China, which, at the same time, also has serious ongoing issues with several other fellow members of the Asean Regional Forum, including Asia's other big military power, India. To the credit of Vietnam, the current Asean chair, it has broadly kept up the grouping's calendar amid these most unusual circumstances.
The latest meeting held extra significance since Washington modified its position on the South China Sea in July, asserting that all of China's claims outside its internationally recognised waters were illegal. Against this background, to hope for balm on the many festering geopolitical disputes would have been wishful thinking. Not unexpectedly, the US-China exchanges were robustly forthright to the extent that set-piece speeches could be. Perhaps it was fortunate that the interlocutors were meeting virtually and not face to face. Without compromising essential interests - Asean member-states with claims to the South China Sea needed to state their positions - they seem to have successfully avoided taking sides in the larger geopolitical dispute.
It was not missed that Asean, this time, came out with an agreed joint communique rather than a mere chairman's statement. This document, running into 28 pages, makes clear that uppermost on Asean's collective mind is the challenge of tackling the Covid-19 pandemic. In its own way, by cutting across several tracks from health to supply chains, the virus is influencing the group. Asean's ability to adopt a cohesive and collective response to the health challenge and sustain growth is key to community building, the very heart of the Asean project. The thinking has long been: big nation or small, we sink or swim together.
But much work lies ahead. There is the issue of vaccine multilateralism - ensuring that an effective vaccine, once discovered, is available across the region and accessible to all regardless of social strata. The other is the pressing need to reopen travel amid Covid-19. Some bilateral arrangements for this are already in place and more are taking shape, but Asean needs to start considering travel arrangements as a bloc. Travel is essential to reopening economies. Equally so is trade. For this reason, it provides welcome relief that ministers agreed that the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade pact that groups economies accounting for nearly a third of global gross domestic product, will be signed this year.