Prime Minister Hun Sen expresses his optimism for recovery in the near future

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Prime Minister Hun Sen says the government has set the stage for the recovery of Cambodia’s economy and a return to a “new normal” before the end of this year, following the successful double-vaccination of more than 85 percent of the population. He said the Kingdom would use its chairmanship of ASEAN in 2022 to help the region rebound from the economic effects of the Coronavirus pandemic.

“With a proactive spirit to promote the preparation of private sectors in reviving and promoting national economic growth the Royal Government of Cambodia adheres to the approach of turning the crisis into an opportunity through launching and implementing key policies and measures including the Cambodia Digital Economy and Social Policies Framework 2021 to 2035, the new investment law as well as the conclusion of the law on public-private partnerships, the Cambodia-China free trade agreement [FTA] and Cambodia Korea free trade agreement, which are planned to enter into force soon,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

The prime minister said the global economy is expected to recover gradually this year and next, supported by a steady increase in the trade-in commodities, while trade-in services will also slowly grow.

His comments came during this year’s virtual ASEAN Business and Investment Summit (ABIS), which brought together heads of state, business leaders, and academics from the 10-nation bloc and its global partners.

Mr. Hun Sen thanked Brunei for its chairmanship of ASEAN this year. The current chairman, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, called the Covid-19 pandemic “a global crisis like no others”, saying it had disrupted people’s health and the socioeconomic order on a scale never seen in the modern world, leaving the global economy in a fragile state. He said it was more important than ever for ASEAN members to work together on a post-pandemic recovery, leveraging new technologies and e-commerce and enhancing cooperation between the private and public sectors.

“The ASEAN Economic Committee Blueprint 2025 will continue to be a vehicle for further business global reach,” the sultan said.

The blueprint focuses on five areas: a highly integrated and cohesive economy, a competitive, innovative, and dynamic ASEAN, enhanced connectivity and sectoral cooperation, a resilient, inclusive, people-oriented, and people-centered ASEAN and a global ASEAN.

The meeting also heard from the prime ministers of Canada, the UK, and Australia, which are all ASEAN dialogue partners.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose government wants a free trade agreement with ASEAN, used his recorded address to push for an FTA.

“As we finish the fight against Covid-19, deepening our ties with ASEAN economies and diversifying trade across the Asia-Pacific will play a crucial role in our recovery,” Trudeau said. “A strong Canada-ASEAN relationship is a clear win-win for all of our businesses and all of our people.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also looking for trade deals after his country left the European Union. He said business between the UK and ASEAN was worth $55 billion each year before the pandemic and he wanted to see the figure rise again.

“We’re negotiating ambitious and wide-ranging free trade deals with a degree of speed and efficiency that few thought possible and we’re pioneering high-tech frontiers with a new digital partnership underpinned by our digital trade network,” Johnson said.

The UK has signed post-Brexit deals or agreements in principle with 69 countries and the European Union, but most are rolled over from EU deals.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called ASEAN a long-term, valued partner.

“We want our businesses to invest in the region with confidence and we want yours to do the same with Australia,” he said. “We all want our economies to rebound strongly from Covid-19 and we all know this can be accelerated through trade and investment under an open, rules-based international system. This makes agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership [RCEP, of which Cambodia is a signatory] and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership [CPTPP] more important than ever. These agreements bring together the shared economic weight of ASEAN and the region’s other major economies,” Morrison said.

He also said the recovery depended on access to safe and effective vaccines, adding that Australia has committed to providing 60 million doses to the Indo-Pacific region by the end of 2022.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo addressed the issue of reopening the region after immunization allows countries to reach herd immunity. Widodo said Indonesia would start to reopen areas where vaccination rates top 70 percent and called on neighboring countries to loosen travel restrictions. Cambodia lifted a 15-month ban on flights from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines on Saturday.

This year’s ABIS theme was “Building Our Sustainable Digital Future”.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob said digital transformation had been a defining feature of the Covid-19 pandemic

“This pandemic has led to the rise of digital technologies, which have supported governments and businesses in adopting agile and adaptive responses,” he said. “In this regard, almost all of the ASEAN countries have introduced digital tools for disseminating information, monitoring healthcare, and sustaining education continuance,” he said, adding that businesses have also been exploring digital financing, e-platforms, and promoting the digital economy.

Ismail Sabri Yaakob said ASEAN still needs to address a widening digital divide. He proposed a three-pronged approach: building inclusive digital infrastructure, promoting inclusive digital literacy, and helping micro, small and medium-sized enterprises [MSMEs] expand the breadth and depth of their digital penetration. He warned that unless MSMEs are included in ASEAN’s digital plan they will be left behind in the post-pandemic era.

Vietnam also pledged to work closely with ASEAN members and partners to develop the digital economy while ensuring inclusive and sustainable development. Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh said his country would do more to reassure international investors.

“Vietnam is making every effort to improve the business environment towards transparency, openness, stability, and protection relating to intellectual property, trademark and copyright,” he said.

Unlike many virtual meetings, ABIS went ahead with few delays or glitches. It was slickly organized into the main stage, breakout room, networking room, and expo, demonstrating that ASEAN does have the technical wherewithal to take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution and become a fully connected digital economy.

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