Cambodian academics said that the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement and the post-COVID-19 recovery would be top on the agenda of the ongoing 37th Summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its related meetings.

The virtual summit kicked off on Thursday and will last until Sunday. Vietnam holds the Summit’s rotating Chairmanship this year.

Chheang Vannarith, President of the Phnom Penh-based Asian Vision Institute, said the priorities at the summit would be the signing of the RCEP agreement, the adoption of the ASEAN comprehensive recovery framework, and the establishment of regional stockpiles of medical supplies.

Other issues to be discussed included the fast-changing regional security and geopolitical landscape, he said, adding that the regional implications of the new leadership in the United States would draw attention as well.

“RCEP is going to be the largest trading bloc in the world, and the signing of this agreement will be another milestone in regional integration and connectivity,” he told. “Deepened economic interdependence contributes to sustaining regional peace, security, stability and prosperity.”

“I believe that the leaders will continue to take precautionary measures to curb the spread of the (COVID-19) pandemic, share information, coordinate regional responses, deepen regional integration and connectivity, strengthen regional supply chains, and explore safe travel bubbles within the region,” he added.

Pou Sothirak, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said he believed the summit agenda would also cover the mid-term review of the implementation of blueprints for the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, the Hanoi Declaration on a post-2025 ASEAN Vision, and the review of the implementation of the ASEAN Charter, among others.

He said the massive scale of the COVID-19 outbreak has brought about the “new normal” that overwhelms individual lives, countries and the whole world.

“ASEAN needs to stand united and come together to deal with the pandemic squarely,” he told.

“The COVID-19 outbreak should be treated as a wake-up call for all nations, especially Southeast Asian nations, to strengthen and revitalize their public health care services”

Sothirak said that effective, integrated public healthcare systems in countries should be made accessible to all if they wish to flatten the curve of the pandemic.

“An ideal public health care system must begin with the conviction that adequate, affordable health care should be available for all individuals,” he said.

Joseph Matthews, senior professor at the BELTEI International University in Phnom Penh, said he believed that the summit would also discuss building a joint task force to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, and post-pandemic economic recovery plans.

The summit was an opportune time for the leaders to reiterate their joint commitment to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, he noted.

“Cooperation and coordination between ASEAN and China are indispensable,” he said. “They should create and formulate the joint task force against the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In his opinion, he said the task force should focus on coordinating the efforts by all member states, evaluating the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the cooperation in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery efforts.

“I think that the leaders will also touch on COVID-19 vaccines as they want the vaccines, when available, to be public goods and affordable, accessible, and equitably shared for all,” he told Xinhua.

“Apart from these topics, I also believe that the economic and trade relationship between ASEAN-China and Belt & Road Initiative infrastructure development in the region will also be high on the agenda,” he added.

Matthews also noted that the RCEP would become the largest free trade agreement in the world, adding, “As the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted the global supply chain and hurt regional economies, I think that RCEP may become a driving force in the post-COVID-19 economic recovery efforts.”