‘Can’t fight COVID-19 alone’: ASEAN leaders call for urgent collaboration in food security and open trade

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Country leaders of all the member states comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) reaffirmed commitments to ensure food security and smooth regional food trade in the recent ASEAN Special Summit on COVID-19. ©iStock
Country leaders of all the member states comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) reaffirmed commitments to ensure food security and smooth regional food trade in the recent ASEAN Special Summit on COVID-19. ©iStock

Related tags COVID-19 Asean

Country leaders of all the member states comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) reaffirmed commitments to ensure food security and smooth regional food trade in the recent ASEAN Special Summit on COVID-19.

The summit was chaired by Vietnam and livestreamed online with representation from top leadership from each of the 10 nations making up the bloc – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Although healthcare, regional communication and joint efforts to combat COVID-19 were the major topics of discussion, food security and food trade were also made part of the summit’s final declaration after these were highlighted by various leaders as priority areas.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte was one of the most vocal – and aggressive - when it came to pushing this agenda forward.

“We are particularly concerned with food security in this period of lockdowns. Our most urgent priority is ensuring sufficient supply of rice for our people – [This means] ASEAN must remain open for trade, crisis or not crisis,”​ said Duterte.

“No country can stand alone, [so] let us thus [work together to] ensure that the supply chain connectivity and smooth flow of goods is within our reach.

“Food security is key to maintaining socioeconomic and political stability especially at times of great difficulty. One can ignore this – but only at one’s own risks.”

The fact that Duterte took this stance was unsurprising, given that the Philippines has been facing mounting pressure over rice​ prices and supply locally since he issued a lockdown​ on the nation’s main island of Luzon, especially after Vietnam temporarily halted rice exports earlier this year, though these have since resumed.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong echoed Duterte’s sentiments on food trade, urging countries to keep borders open despite the challenges.

“ASEAN should collaborate to keep trading routes and supply lines open, especially for essential goods such as medical supplies and food [as] none of us are self-sufficient in these essential items,”​ he said.

“Many of us also export goods and agricultural products overseas. Closing our borders completely would therefore only deprive us all of goods and products that we can produce together, hurting our economies and worsening unemployment.”

Lee also cited the Singapore-Malaysia Special Working Committee on COVID-19 as a ‘practical example’​ of collaboration which was formed after Malaysia first announced its nationwide lockdown on March 18.

Singapore imports large amounts of food products such as eggs, fresh produce, chicken and fish from its neighbour and the initial news of Malaysia’s lockdown had led to a round of panic-buying in Singapore​ due to fears of food supply shortages.

“Through this Working Committee we have kept goods flowing between us, despite current restrictions on the movement of people,”​ said Lee.

“Under stress, the global network of trade is fracturing. ASEAN members cannot control what other countries do, but we should stand together, maintain trade among ourselves and persuade our partners to keep trade flowing.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin attempted to drive home the importance of immediate action and a new recovery plan, where food is one of the main areas of focus.

“In every crisis lies an opportunity and Malaysia foresees that ASEAN as a regional block must work together post COVID-19. All our nations are facing similar complications and we must work together to ensure no one is left behind,”​ said Muhyiddin.

“Looking ahead, Malaysia would like to propose that our Economic Ministers have an immediate discussion to begin shaping an ASEAN Economic Recovery Plan which ​must include measures we as a region will undertake to address issues directly faced by our more than 600 million citizens.

“[Main issues would be] to preserve supply chain connectivity; the smooth flow of essential medical, food and essential supplies; and ensure critical infrastructure for trade and trading routes via air, land and sea are preserved and remain open.”

“We must also guard against imposition of unnecessary restrictions on the flow of medical, food and essential supplies.”

The ASEAN+3 Special Summit on COVID-19 also took place the same day, which also included leaders from China, South Korea and Japan in addition to the 10 ASEAN leaders.

Statements and actions

The ASEAN+3 leaders agreed to ‘remain committed’​ to keeping ASEAN markets open for trade and investment at the conclusion of the summits, as well as to enhance inter-and intra-regional cooperation.

“[We will] enhance cooperation among ASEAN Member States and also with ASEAN’s external partners with a view to ensuring food security, such as the utilisation of the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve (APTERR), and strengthening the resiliency and sustainability of regional supply chains, especially for food [and other] essential supplies,”​ stated the final summit declaration.

The APTERR was established in 2011, and essentially comprises of rice stocks contributed by each member country to aid those in need in times of adversity. According to the APTERR website: “Rice reserves under the APTERR must be fit for human consumption based on international food safety standards.”

There should be 787,000 tonnes of rice stocks in these reserves: 87,000 tonnes from ASEAN member countries, and 700,000 tonnes from the Plus Three countries. China is the biggest contributor here at 300,000 tonnes.

APTERR aside, the summit also agreed to task each country’s Economic Ministers and Senior Economic Officials to work on supply chain connectivity to allow the smooth flow of essential goods, and ensure further COVID-19 related public health measures ‘do not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to regional supply chains’​.

ASEAN F&B industry

Regional trade bodies the ASEAN Food and Beverage Alliance (AFBA) and Food Industry Asia (FIA), together with the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ASEAN BAC) and the EU-ASEAN Business Council (EU-ABC) also submitted a joint statement to the ASEAN leaders involved in the summit, calling for governments to involve the respective food industries more closely in their battle.

“A concerted effort will be required between industry and governments to keep supply chains open and minimise disruption to the food system and ASEAN communities,”​ said the statement.

“ASEAN’s food value chain is not only crucial for ensuring food security, but also a major driver of GDP and employment in the region. [It] contributes around US$500bn of economic output, some 17% of ASEAN’s total GDP.

“We commit to do whatever we can to ensure uninterrupted food production and supply chains, including the preservation of open borders for goods, both at an upstream and downstream level, whilst working closely with governments to assist them in their fight to contain COVID-19.”

The statement also reiterated calls for F&B workers throughout the supply chain to be considered essential and allowed to work, protecting the health of these essential workers, and making public-private consultation a priority.

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