No Asean handshake this year, but there is optimism for signing of regional trade deal

Asean leaders doing the signature Asean handshake at the summit in Bangkok on Nov 3, 2019. PHOTO: ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Each year, leaders of Asean's member countries take part in what is known as the Asean handshake. In the group photo, each leader extends his right arm over his left and shakes the opposite hands of those next to him.

But this year, with Covid-19, such physical gatherings have been replaced with meetings by video conference.

It has, however, not prevented the 10-member regional bloc from coming up with a slew of initiatives ahead of the 37th Asean Summit and related meetings in Hanoi this week, said Singapore's Ambassador to Vietnam Catherine Wong.

The key initiatives include: Setting up a Covid-19 Asean response fund; an Asean Comprehensive Recovery Framework to help the region recover from the pandemic; a regional reserve of medical supplies; and pushing along the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a proposed free trade agreement involving 15 countries, including Asean.

"People are generally hopeful and optimistic that (RCEP) can be signed by the end of this year," she said.

"If that pans out, it will send a strong signal that Asean remains open for business and trade, and this will boost investor confidence."

Established in 1967 by five countries - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore - Asean has since fostered a culture of cooperation and dealt with challenges collectively.

Today, the regional bloc has a population of nearly 640 million people and a combined gross domestic product of $2.57 trillion. Some suggest that it is poised to become the fourth largest economy in the world by 2030.

Vietnam, this year's chair, came up with the theme "Cohesive and Responsive" before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

But it has turned out to be remarkably apt in the present circumstances, said Ms Wong.

Much of Asean's focus this year has been on how the region can respond effectively to the outbreak and its economic fallout, amid escalating geopolitical tensions, she said.

"We are confronting many challenges, and it's easy for countries to turn inwards and focus on their domestic politics. A small and trade-reliant country like Singapore cannot afford to do this," she added.

"It's important that Asean countries are able to speak with one voice on issues of mutual concern - whether it is on handling the pandemic, maintaining supply chain connectivity, or ensuring regional integration."

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