Nov 12, 2012

Singapore - ASEAN's heavy, fragile baggage

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Leaders will arrive in Phnom Penh this week for the summit of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN). The group of 10 has emerged to convene key dialogues for the wider Asia-Pacific and the summit takes place amid global economic uncertainties and regional tensions.

ASEAN leaders will find their bags packed full of expectations and must carry and unpack their burdens with care. Can positive steps be taken?

Fresh from winning his second term, American President Barack Obama will be present, alongside Chinese leaders going through their own and very different transition. The summit will be a first place to guess about the future for the world's most important bilateral relationship.

During campaigning, voters bemoaned the loss of jobs and Mr Obama wagged a finger at Beijing's practices. It remains to be seen if he will use ASEAN's summit as an informal opportunity to shift to a more positive note.

The President will then go to Myanmar, a country until recently closeted and controversial because of human rights. This will further the Obama administration's pivot towards Asia, but those who suspect an American containment strategy will be watching closely.


The summit will also evidence Beijing's attitudes. At the Party Congress, outgoing leader Hu Jintao underlined China's ambition to become a maritime power.

This comes when territorial claims at sea are hot-button issues, not only with Tokyo but also in the South China Sea with a number of South-east Asian states.

The latter disputes marred the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in July, which ended without an agreed statement for the first time in its history. That was attributed to sensitivities about how to describe disputed claims.

At the upcoming summit, the rival and unresolved claims cannot be wholly ignored. Yet, if discussion is unbalanced, differences can be further inflamed.

This brings Cambodia into sharp focus as the host. When the July meeting broke down, many blamed Beijing's influence. Cambodia and China have denied this in various ways but a second test of intention and ability will come at the summit.

Cambodia must be expected to discharge its responsibility to ASEAN as a whole. The country, after all, hosts this summit on the group's behalf and not as a national prerogative.

As for China, it has always officially supported ASEAN's central role and should not divide and weaken the group.


On its part, ASEAN must continue to work on the long to-do list arising from the agenda to create an ASEAN community by end-2015. This concerns not only matters of politics but also fostering economic integration and better social and cultural understanding.

The summit will include the launch of an ASEAN institute for peace and reconciliation, and a human rights declaration. Also expect recommendations to strengthen the group's secretariat, when Thailand's charismatic Surin Pitsuwan ends his term as Secretary-General and gives way to Vietnam's Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh.

These and other aspects of the intra-ASEAN agenda intertwine with its wider role. ASEAN's community project is a key pillar for the wider region and vice-versa. This sets the context for another new initiative expected at the summit.

Talks are expected to begin for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to link ASEAN to six Asian partners - the big three of North-east Asia as well as India, Australia and New Zealand. Potentially, RCEP will bring together more than three billion people, with a combined gross domestic product over US$17 trillion (S$20.8 trillion).

This all-Asian effort is especially significant as Beijing has felt pointedly excluded from the ongoing and American-led negotiations on a Trans Pacific Partnership. Having ASEAN at the hub of RCEP underlines the group's significance to others in Asia.

It is not, however, to be assumed that ASEAN will be strong enough to carry the burden of so many diverse interests for its own members and the wider region.

Other countries will hopefully show empathy and support for the many different interests that will be brought to Phnom Penh.

Only then can ASEAN leaders unpack a heavy and sometimes awkward Summit agenda, and ensure items are delivered - and not broken on the way.

Simon Tay

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