Dec 27, 2012

Thailand - Tiny Brunei takes on Asean chair

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Many challenges lie ahead for Asean in the year ahead. Security concerns will be characterised by heightened tensions in the South China Sea as the dispute remains unresolved. China has not been shy in asserting its interests in the territories it disputes with Asean countries and Japan.

Next, uncertainty over the global economy will be characterised by the rise of Asia, the slow recovery of the US and the ongoing eurozone debt crisis. Lastly, the worsening effects of climate change will be more apparent as Thailand withstood 2011's flooding, while the Philippines is still reeling from Typhoon Bopha.

Asean countries stand a greater chance of success if they face these challenges together. What is clear is that these forces will be testing the region's political economy. Only through cooperation can member states become more resilient against external pressures and shocks.

The incoming chair of Asean is Brunei. As chairman, Brunei's mandate will be to set the agenda and issue the chairman's statements at ministerial meetings and leaders' summits. This is a powerful tool for a country with a population of 400,000.

Observers have dismissed Brunei as a diplomatic featherweight. However, it has considerably high stakes in Asean's success. Unlike Cambodia, Brunei is a disputant in the South China Sea. This compounds the issue and suggests that Brunei may take a stronger line against China's claims.

How well it can persuade other Asean countries will hinge on the diplomatic prowess of its statesmen. Brunei's Foreign Minister, Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, has famously advocated "defence diplomacy" _ a doctrine that focuses on continuous dialogue and personal relationships. This may give some indication of how the Sultanate will use its status as Asean chair to approach the dispute.

In the economic realm, the grouping will continue to work towards the Asean Economic Community (AEC), which is severely behind schedule. However, the AEC will be high on the agenda of the next chairman.

While it is the responsibility of member states to accelerate the AEC blueprint, Brunei will have to be the stimulus. Economic cooperation matches Brunei's policy of diversifying from its oil wealth and developing other sectors of the economy; all the new partnerships in the AEC can help it achieve this objective.

Cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) is also pressing. This provides a venue for Asean, through Brunei's chairmanship, to engage with the block's dialogue partners. In addition to the urgency, leaders consider HADR less politically sensitive, making it a good area for collaboration.

Asean can work with its dialogue partners in improving HADR, such as faster response time and long-term solutions to address climate change.

Lastly, the Asean Secretariat will also welcome a new secretary-general, Le Loung Minh from Vietnam. A seasoned diplomat, Mr Le was formerly Vietnam's ambassador to the United Nations and president of the UN Security Council in 2008. His five years at the Secretariat will be devoted to increasing the efficiency of the Secretariat and improving the monumental task of coordinating the actions and commitment of the 10 countries.

The year 2013 will be a critical one for Asean. The challenges carried over from the previous year will be more intense. The Asean integration process is deeply under-resourced and commitment to Asean community building from the people, businesses and political leadership from all the countries will be crucial. The message Brunei is sending to Asean and the world is "thrusters on full".

Chayut Setboonsarng

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