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Amid the continuing disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, the work of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on issues of trade, diplomacy, development and public health has continued, including the group’s first summit by video conference in November.

This year is the 54th anniversary of ASEAN, which counts Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam among its members. Together, these nations are home to more than 10% of the world’s population and generate more than ¥350 trillion in gross domestic product every year.

Japan has strong economic and diplomatic interests in Southeast Asia, as well as a long history of involvement and partnership with the association. In fact, 2021 is the 40th anniversary of the founding of the ASEAN-Japan Centre, an intergovernmental organization that promotes investment, tourism and other initiatives between the member states and Japan. This is also the 10th year since the Japanese government established an official mission to ASEAN, one that is currently led by Ambassador Akira Chiba.

The government has taken a particular interest in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), a 2020 report that emphasized that cooperation and dialogue were needed in the region on a number of important issues. The report was clearly, if not explicitly, an expression of concern about China’s rising power, especially as it relates to maritime freedom. A joint statement on the matter in November highlighted the similarities with Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) initiative.

The Japan-ASEAN Connectivity Initiative seeks to promote another of the main areas of cooperation mentioned in the AOIP report. Here, connectivity primarily refers to air, road and sea links within and between the ASEAN states. Specific goals include completing overland corridors connecting Myanmar in the west to Vietnam in the east, a shared regional airspace and multiple port improvements. There are also “soft infrastructure” objectives in areas such as customs management, traffic safety and railway planning.

In June, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshi Kajiyama proposed in a meeting with ASEAN energy ministers the creation of an “Asia Energy Transition Initiative” that would aim to optimize the energy resources available to the ASEAN states as well as promote efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The initiative would work alongside current programs, including the ASEAN Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation and the association’s Centre for Energy.

While efforts to distribute effective vaccines have brought the end of the pandemic within sight, there have been disparities in the vaccination progress in ASEAN. Japan is trying to aid those efforts by donating millions of vaccine doses to some of its members, in addition to the 11 million doses it has pledged to Southeast and Southwest Asia, the Pacific islands and other areas through the COVAX program.

The foundation of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases was announced at November’s summit meeting. The region has experienced a number of public health crises involving infectious diseases since the SARS epidemic of 2003, but the COVID-19 pandemic has caused by far the most disruption and suffering. The new organization will seek to bolster public health emergency preparedness and improve the efficiency of mobilization when these resources are needed. At the summit, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged to support the center’s efforts through the Japan International Cooperation Agency and other avenues.

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