30 December 2020

AVI conference discusses ASEM relations in ‘new normal’

Tom Starkey – Khmer Times – December 23, 2020

The Asian Vision Institute (AVI) – an independent think-tank based in Cambodia – hosted a panel discussion exploring the challenges faced by Asia and Europe in the “new normal” and the subsequent importance of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) as a result.

The panel discussion was presented by Leng Thearith, director of the Mekong Centre for Strategic studies at AVI, and featured guest speakers Sok Siphana, chairman of the AVI, Yeo Lal Hwee, director of the European Union Centre in Singapore, and Daniel Schucking, country director of Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung in Cambodia.

Opening the talks, Siphana said the ASEM has an impact that reaches beyond the scope of Asian-European relations, outwards to the global stage.

“Its impact [touches] everything from macro level issues such as climate change, to ground levels initiatives such as including more women in the workplace. ASEM gives all countries the ability to express their own view and work on issues in mutual consideration of one another,” he said.

Schucking agreed, saying that the ASEM forum is vital to solving major issues, especially amid the pandemic, because its partners account for approximately 60 percent of the global population, 65 percent of the global economy, 55 percent of global trade and 75 percent of global tourism.

Hwee added that the forum is important for economic cooperation, but also politically, as tensions between China and the US continue (to rise).

“ASEM will play an important role in enhancing and achieving multi-faceted aspects of cooperation ranging from politics to [the] economy, as well as [in helping] the build-up of socio-cultural bonds between the two continents. Especially now, the ASEM will be hugely important [in ensuring] a fair and equitable distribution of [COVID-19 vaccines],” she said.

One of the key points discussed by the panel was the effect of Coronavirus on supply chains, particularly with regard to medical supplies.

Siphana continued: “COVID-19 has made countries look internally at their own vulnerabilities. Lots of [pharmaceuticals], especially the ingredients for medicines, are made in China and [during] the disruptions to [those supply lines], many countries recognised their reliance on Asian markets for medical supplies.

Hwee agreed, saying that the pandemic has spurred Europe to focus on its “strategic autonomy” in the new normal.

“Europe’s pursuit of strategic autonomy in 2021 will have a big impact on supply lines. The ASEM forum will be important in navigating changing strategies to ensure a mutually beneficial outcome [because it is difficult to build] resilient supply chains [independently].”

“As well as having a domestic stockpile, you need to have multilevel supply chains. The pandemic should be a lesson to countries to push back against nationalistic and populist rhetoric and motivate countries to further connect and build relationships. ASEM will be key to facilitating these processes,” she said.

The panel also discussed how ASEM relations will help ensure the availability of COVID-19 vaccines, especially for smaller countries such as Cambodia. Hwee said Singapore has already committed $5 million to help less-developed countries access the vaccine.

A recent meeting between the EU and Asean saw a promise by Europe to put aside funds to help poorer countries cope with the pandemic, which should include the vaccine as it is rolled out. Therefore, she said, steps are being taken and the next ASEM meeting will be able to build upon those pledges and formulate something more concrete.

Siphana added the most important thing for smaller countries, when trying to get hold of vaccines for themselves, is [determining how] we get a minimum supply to help our frontline workers.

“The priority will be for the first wave of vaccine ‘delivery to go to frontline workers. If the ASEM can facilitate this to at least cover them, that will be a huge bonus for countries which do not have adequate health facilities,” he said.

“However, it also again relates to supply chain issues. The vaccine has to be stored at minus 70 degree Celsius, so how do you deal with this sort of supply chain issue? The vaccine may be available, but the country may not be able to store it [properly],” he added.

Schucking added that there has already been talk in Europe on how to supply lower income countries with the vaccine, (when it was brought up by Angela Merkel at the G20 summit).

“At the moment, answering the question [of] who gets the vaccine first is tough. However, that means on every platform, in every multilateral meeting, there will need to be discussion – and forums like the ASEM will be key,” he said.

However, Hwee said that countries shouldn’t be putting all their eggs in one basket (as recovery goes) and (just) bank on the vaccine because 7 billion people can’t be vaccinated overnight.

“Cooperation on things like contact tracing and sharing technology will be essential to help us during the pandemic and will also strengthen ourselves against further threats,” she added.

The panel also discussed the importance of the ASEM to help Cambodia, who will host the 13th ASEM Summit, work on a compromise regarding the Everything but Arms (EBA) partial withdrawal of free trade with the EU.

“The ASEM summit being held in Cambodia will not only shine a light on the Kingdom, but offer it an opportunity to welcome EU representatives and senior officials [to] talk further about a solution on the partial EBA withdrawal,” said Schucking, although it’s uncertain whether the European delegation will attend.

He added that the opportunity to find a solution regarding this will alleviate some of the tension [that has built up] between Cambodia and the EU, especially after the latter signed a free-trade agreement deal with Vietnam after the EBA withdrawal.

A news release from the AVI prior to the discussion said Cambodia has committed to working hand-in-hand with ASEM partners to further strengthen solidarity and pursue multilateralism.

“Various layers of cooperation and exchanges have been established between the ASEM partners. These include the distribution of medical supplies, medical personnel exchange and, most importantly, the exchange of information to safeguard and prevent the spread of this infectious disease. In this vein, despite the enduring negative spill-over and catastrophe posed by this trans-boundary virus, ASEM has still committed to stabilising global supply chains and rolling out a series of policies with aims [directed at keeping] industries and businesses [on] the two continents afloat,” it said.

The ASEM was established in 1996 in order to provide a platform for its member states to strengthen political, economic and cultural cooperation, to foster political dialogues and tackle global challenges, as well as to promote peace, prosperity and sustainable development between Asia and Europe.