Leaders attend the 32nd Asean Summit today, in the midst of challenges ahead for the regional grouping where problem areas include the code of conduct on South China Sea and the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Chheang Vannarith writes that now, more than ever, the political will and leadership of each member state is crucial to ensure Asean’s relevance in a highly fluid geopolitical environment.
Leaders from the ten Asean member states will be in Singapore today to attend 32nd Asean Summit under the theme of “Resilience and Innovation” to discuss regional and international issues. Asean is at an “inflection point” and the regional grouping’s unity and centrality are becoming even more critical amidst global and regional uncertainties caused by geopolitical power shifts, international security flash points, domestic political transformations, disruptive technology, and growing protectionism.
Singapore’s Asean chairmanship this year aims to step up efforts to establish a high quality regional trading system, promote collaboration on cyber security, create an Asean smart cities network, work towards completing a model Asean extradition treaty, and continue to strengthen economic and financial resilience. Singapore also wants Asean to deepen ties with external partners, and enhance collective resilience against common threats like terrorism and violent extremism.
Documents on the vision to make Asean more resilient and innovative, develop a smart cities’ network, and promote cyber security cooperation are expected to be adopted at the summit.
Concerning global and regional issues, Asean foreign ministers have recently issued statements concerning the Korean peninsula and Syria. Asean welcomes the upcoming inter-Korean summit, while calling for “the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner and expresses hope for a peaceful and amicable resolution to the issue.”
However, the prospect of denuclearisation is really slim given North Korea is now a “full-fledged strategic state” with nuclear weapons. North Korea will not relinquish its nuclear bombs unless there is a package deal between North Korea and the US, and other parties concerned.
On the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Asean has condemned the use of chemical weapons as this seriously violates international law. Asean urged all parties concerned to “work toward a sustainable political solution through inclusive, meaningful and non-sectarian dialogue and negotiations.”
Syria has become the playground of major power politics – it is the spectre of a new Cold War between Russia and the Western powers. The solutions can be found only if major powers can reach a deal and Syrian leaders from all parties have genuine political will for a peaceful settlement and power sharing arrangement.
On the global front, the ongoing trade war between China and the US is unfolding and the impacts can be considerable as it causes downward pressure for the world economy through tax hikes. Asean’s economy, which has become more integrated into regional and global supply chains, will be affected either directly or indirectly although America’s protectionist trade policy is mainly aimed at China.
Asean is determined to maintain and strengthen an open, liberal multilateral trading system in the region in order to sustain the momentum of economic growth. One way to deepen regional integration is to swiftly conclude the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
Negotiation over RCEP has been sluggish due to disagreements over the modality of tariff reduction on trade in goods, liberalisation measures of trade in services, and an investment liberalisation framework. Some countries, particularly India, are reluctant to liberalise their markets. When it is realised, RCEP will be the largest free-trade arrangement in the world with over 3.5 billion people and about one third of the global economy.
The conclusion of RCEP will strengthen Asean centrality in regional economic architecture, facilitate trade and investment flows, support small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in engaging with global and regional supply chains, and deepen Asean’s economic partnerships with its six Free Trade Agreement partners.
Another challenge that Asean is facing is the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The repatriation of refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar is economically costly and politically sensitive. Perhaps one of the reasons that Aung San Suu Kyi decided to skip the Asean summit this week is to avoid direct criticism and pressures from her Asean colleagues. Asean has been urged to take concrete actions to intervene and mitigate the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.
The South China Sea issue, too, remains contentious. Negotiations for the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea remain sensitive and complex and disagreement over whether the COC is legally binding slows down the negotiation process. Asean members do not have a strong consensus on the core elements to be included in the COC. Some member countries are interested in inserting a conflict resolution mechanism in the COC while others are reluctant. Further complicating the issue is China, which is not keen in having a strong, legally binding COC that may constrain its maritime power ambitions.
There are challenges ahead for Asean. Continued reforms and the opening of member states’ economies, to pave the way for regional economic integration and higher adaptability in the current geopolitical climate, will help Asean navigate through global power shifts and uncertainties and ride the tide of global trends. Asean’s centrality and relevance largely depend on the political will and leadership of each member state and Asean’s collective capacity in addressing regional and global issues and challenges.
Chheang Vannarith is a visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.