SINGAPORE - The region has to ensure an equitable, steady and affordable supply of Covid-19 vaccines for its people once these are available, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Asean Summit on Thursday (Nov 12).
He made the call for "vaccine multilateralism" as he stressed the importance of regional cooperation to mitigate the pandemic's long-term impact at the meeting held remotely this year.
He added that Singapore supports global vaccine initiatives such as the Covid-19 Vaccine Global Access (Covax) Facility, whose members include many Asean nations.
"Many leading vaccine candidates are being developed by our external partners, as well as our Asean member states too," PM Lee said. "We should work with them to facilitate the production and distribution of vaccines to meet the needs of our region."
Singapore will contribute US$100,000 (S$134,900) to the Covid-19 Asean Response Fund, which helps member states procure the medical supplies and equipment needed to combat the pandemic.
On the economic front, leaders should redouble efforts to enhance Asean's competitiveness in the post-Covid-19 world, Mr Lee added. He noted that there are existing frameworks that can be built on, such as the Master Plan on Asean Connectivity 2025 and the Asean Smart Cities Network. In addition, the recently launched Asean Customs Transit System helps facilitate the cross-border flow of goods.
"These initiatives can catalyse our recovery, and let us make full use of technology as we adjust to new ways of living and doing business in the post-Covid world," he said.
The Prime Minister noted that Asean has made progress in various areas, including the mid-term reviews of the Asean Community Blueprints. It has started developing the Asean Community's post-2025 vision, and is expected to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership deal on Sunday following years of negotiations.
But one challenge ahead will be that great power rivalry is not absent in South-east Asia, with tensions between the United States and China putting the region under greater stress and testing Asean centrality and unity, Mr Lee said.
Even so, Asean can make a modest contribution towards better mutual trust and cooperation among the major powers.
"Our regional architecture is open and inclusive by design, with Asean at its centre," Mr Lee added. "We must retain our value proposition of offering a neutral platform for countries to work together on regional and global challenges such as counter-terrorism, cyber security and transboundary haze pollution."
The Asean leaders attended four annual summits with their key partners - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Indian PM Narendra Modi - on Thursday afternoon, with PM Lee speaking on the need for deepening economic cooperation and connectivity between the region and its partners.
The Asean-Japan Summit also saw the launch of the Asean Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases, which aims to strengthen the functions of national health agencies and help prevent the spread of disease.
Vietnam PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc said the centre and related efforts will enhance members' joint capacity to respond to medical emergencies and future epidemic threats.
Asean leaders also agreed to adopt an Asean travel corridor arrangement framework to facilitate the resumption of essential travel in the region, and have asked officials to work on the details.
They also stressed the need to develop a common set of pre-departure and post-arrival health and safety measures to protect people, and emphasised that travellers had to strictly abide by public health regulations of receiving countries.
The corridor is part of a wider Asean Comprehensive Recovery Framework which leaders also endorsed. It outlines ways for the region to emerge stronger from the crisis, such as investing in education and reskilling, and enhancing digital and financial inclusion.