In The News

Progress on Economy at ASEAN Talks, But South China Sea Rocks the Boat

November 28, 2012

This month, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was at the center of a flurry of diplomatic activity as members gathered in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh for the annual summit meeting, as well as a series of high-level “ASEAN plus” meetings with Dialogue Partners including China and the United States. Economics was covered in several news reports, but it was a security story that stole the headlines.

The growing economic significance of Southeast Asia has led global powers to also pay more attention to the political and security issues of the region. Photo/Ted Alcorn

On the economic and trade front, different groupings with overlapping memberships launched initiatives and held discussions on the sidelines of the main meetings. ASEAN and its Free Trade Area Partners (Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand) launched a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Parties to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (Australia, Brunei, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam) met and agreed to try to conclude talks by 2013.

In recognition of ASEAN’s growing role in the world economy, the United States also launched the U.S.-ASEAN Expanded Economic Engagement (E3) initiative and the 2013 ASEAN-U.S. Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA) Work Plan. According to the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, the ASEAN region is now the 5th largest market for U.S. exports.

U.S.-ASEAN diplomatic relations also received a boost when both sides agreed to institutionalize the meeting at the Summit level, ensuring that future participation at the annual talks would be kept at the level of the U.S. president and ASEAN heads of government.

ASEAN leaders even signed a landmark Declaration on Human Rights. While detractors may have sniffed at the lack of bite in the declaration, other long-term analysts of the region marveled at how far the association – usually known for its hard-nosed focus on economics and aversion of potentially troublesome issues – had come.

But the territorial rows over the South China Sea between China and some ASEAN member countries again made waves at the November ASEAN gathering. Earlier this year in July, the unity of the regional group had already taken a blow when its Foreign Ministers made controversial history by failing for the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year existence to agree on a Joint Communiqué because of disagreement over the territorial disputes.

At this month’s summit, a draft statement from Cambodia’s chairman included a paragraph stating that ASEAN had arrived at a consensus not to internationalize the issue of the South China Sea territorial claims. This was strongly disputed by some members, including Brunei, the Philippines, and Singapore. Eventually, the paragraph was dropped, and a final version of the statement was agreed and issued, saving the grouping from a repeat of the July fiasco. The boat had been rocked again, but at least it managed to keep everyone on board this time.

Looking ahead, Vietnam’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Le Luong Minh will succeed Surin Pitsuwan as secretary-general of ASEAN for the next five-year term (2013-2018). Brunei takes over the chairmanship from Cambodia for the year 2013 and Burma (also known as Myanmar) is slated to hold the chairmanship for 2014. It would be the country’s first time chairing the group since it joined ASEAN in 1997. (In 2006, in the face of strong international objections, it had passed up its turn to chair to focus on internal reforms.)

The growing economic significance of the region has led global powers to also pay more attention to the political and security issues of the region. With these external powers now increasingly in the mix, the dynamics among the ASEAN countries have become more complex. Loyalties are pulled in different directions as national interests are weighed against regional interests. With each member of ASEAN making calculations using its own set of scales, there is no doubt that the unity of ASEAN will continue to be tested in the future. But if the 10 members are to realize their imminent goal of an integrated ASEAN Community by Dec. 31, 2015, they cannot afford many more missteps.

Peggy Kek is an adviser for The Asia Foundation in Singapore. She can be reached at pkek@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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