Singapore (VNA) – Despite difficulties in organising meetings and gatherings due to COVID-19 pandemic, ASEAN member countries have given a series of initiatives on the threshold of the 37th ASEAN Summit and related meetings in Hanoi this week, Singaporean Ambassador to Vietnam Catherine Wong has said.

She noted that the key initiatives include the setting up a COVID-19 ASEAN response fund; an ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework to help the region recover from the pandemic; a regional reserve of medical supplies; and pushing along the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a proposed free trade agreement involving 15 countries, including ASEAN states.

People are generally hopeful and optimistic that RCEP can be signed by the end of this year, said Wong.

The Singaporean diplomat said that if that pans out, it will send a strong signal that ASEAN remains open for business and trade, and this will boost investor confidence.

Established in 1967 by five countries - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore - ASEAN has since fostered a culture of cooperation and dealt with challenges collectively.

Today, the regional bloc has a population of nearly 640 million people and a combined gross domestic product of 2.57 trillion USD. Some suggest that it is poised to become the fourth-largest economy in the world by 2030.

Vietnam, this year's ASEAN chair, came up with the theme "Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN" before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. It has turned out to be remarkably apt in the present circumstances, she held.

Wong asserted that much of ASEAN's focus this year has been on how the region can respond effectively to the outbreak and its economic fallout, amid rising geopolitical tensions./.