Analysis: The ASEAN and East Asia Summits

Updated On: Nov 15, 2011

19th ASEAN Summit: Agenda and Implications

Leaders at the coming 19th ASEAN Summit in Bali, Indonesia, are expected to sign about 30 pacts in politics, economy and security in the region, said I Gede Ngurah Swajaya, Indonesian Ambassador to ASEAN.

Mr Swajaya said that with regards to the economy, the agreement would be on the ASEAN single market and regional production bases, while ten of the deals will be on food and energy security, conflict resolution, regional architectures, and the participation of the community-based organizations. Agreements are also to be signed on natural disaster management. The Summit will also discuss other issues such as the rotation of Myanmar and Lao PDR as the chair of ASEAN and the membership of Timor Leste.

Report: 30 deals in economy, politics, security expected to be signed during ASEAN Summit (Philippine Star, 14 Nov 2011)

However, significant obstacles remain for ASEAN. Despite brisk economic growth making ASEAN the economic third pillar of emerging Asia behind regional giants China and India, many business people see it is as merely a talking shop that happens to include countries that offer an attractive alternative to China for manufacturing operations.

The coming meeting is thus an opportunity to change that view, making it a crucial juncture in its history. ASEAN leaders will evaluate the progress on an ambitious plan to form an integrated economic community by 2015, which would create a regional free market in goods and services.

However, there is scepticism in the region’s business community about whether the economic community will be successfully formed. Experts have raised concerns about whether ASEAN has enough authority, influence and political will to push member states into realising that goal, and also about ASEAN's artificial regional identity.

ASEAN also has large disparities in economic development, political systems, rule of law and corruption, as well as in culture. This has led to the development of the “ASEAN way”, a system of progress by consensus. This was set up with the intention of staying away from the impression of interference in each other’s internal affairs. Yet this resulted in a lack of solid mechanisms for implementing policies or resolutions, causing agreements to deliver less than promised or trigger disputes once they are put into force, with resistance to change widespread.

On the other hand, ASEAN has gone against repeated predictions that it would disappear, and there has been tangible progress. Trade within ASEAN may not be completely free but between larger countries, most goods do move without duties. Limited cross-border stock trading is in the cards, though only larger members will be involved.

Tai Hui of Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore cites examples of integration opportunities within ASEAN, with Singapore acting as a service centre, Thailand and Malaysia as advanced manufacturing cores and Indonesia and Vietnam as low-cost production bases, with all countries utilising the region’s commodities and natural resources. The 19th ASEAN Summit in Bali thus presents an opportunity for ASEAN to bring about further change and integration.

Analysis: ASEAN summit: A fragmented forum (Financial Times, 14 Nov 2011)

Meanwhile, Singapore's Foreign Minister Mr K Shanmugam said in an interview with Channel NewsAsia that ASEAN has progressed well under the firm and competent leadership of the current Chair Indonesia, commending Indonesia’s mediation in the Thai-Cambodian dispute over an area around the ancient Preah Vihear temple.

Mr Shanmugam added, “We have a set of international rules which governs our conduct as an entity; it provides for a certain modus operandi between the countries; it has allowed all of us to grow together with a set of common values, and together as opposed to be alone in the international scene, together as ASEAN it has given us a much bigger voice.”

“Our dialogue partnerships have been strengthened considerably. These have considerable economic benefits...in terms of progressing the community building and making easier people-to-people movement and when ASEAN speaks as a single voice, people do take note.”

Prof Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said, “I am hoping to see a strong political signal coming out of the Bali summit which tells the bureaucrats that various burdens must come down, various barriers must be dismantled. I also hope to hear companies' voices, think-tanks, too. But companies, being the main people who will invest and trade across borders, need to take ASEAN more seriously and ASEAN needs to respond to their calls.”

Report: ASEAN has progressed well under Indonesia chairmanship: Shanmugam (Channel NewsAsia, 13 Nov 2011)

6th East Asia Summit: Agenda and Implications

Coming immediately after the ASEAN Summit is the 6th East Asia Summit, with the US and Russia participating in the Summit for the first time.

Surin Pitsuwan, the Secretary-General of ASEAN said the group’s East Asia Summit will follow up on the trade issues being discussed at APEC and include other trade-related topics in the region.

Mr Pitsuwan said the ASEAN-led summit will concentrate on efforts to make the region a nuclear free zone, reducing instability on the Korean peninsula, and furthering progress made toward developing a code of conduct to help manage disputes in the South China Sea. He adds that a prominent issue will be on improving regional and global assistance during natural disasters.

Mr Pitsuwan said ASEAN's support for Myanmar’s chairmanship in 2014 has become less contentious after the country’s elections last year, the release of some political prisoners, and on-going talks between the government and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Mr Pitsuwan said he hopes that western governments might call for some easing of sanctions on Myanmar during the East Asia Summit.

Mr Pitsuwan remarked that as ASEAN continues to grow into an integrated economic and political community, the East Asia Summit will grow in significance to world leaders that want to boost relations with some of the most robust economies in the world.

Report: E. Asia Summit to Focus on Trade (Voice of America, 14 Nov 2011)

Amid optimism for ASEAN’s role in the upcoming Summits, a major bilateral relationship that has seen tensions continues to loom: US-China relations. During the APEC Summit in Honolulu, President Barack Obama's push to reaffirm the United States as a Pacific power has caused China to respond in a strident manner, adding to strains in the already uncertain relationship. The increasing rivalry could also complicate a difficult balancing act played by Asia's smaller nations.

While affirming that he wanted stable ties with China, Mr Obama called for China to “play by the rules” of international trade, said its export-driven economy “throws the whole world economy out of balance,” and insisted it behave like a “grown up” rather than pretending to be a developing nation.

China reacted quickly, dismissing demands to float its currency and asserting that it would follow only trade rules that it helped negotiate. Chinese leaders were also displeased with Mr Obama’s push for a Pacific free trade area, the Trans-Pacific Partnership which excludes China. With this backdrop of increased US engagement and China’s assertiveness, the East Asia Summit faces numerous difficulties surrounding the US-China relationship.

Analysis: Obama's Pacific aspirations strain ties with China (Reuters, 14 Nov 2011)

University of Indonesia international relations expert Syamsul Hadi said the East Asia Summit had grown to allow the US and Russia to participate to balance the power of an aggressively growing China.

He told The Jakarta Post on Monday, “The [East Asia Summit] has become important because it is ASEAN countries who decided to invite in the US and Russia, to counter China’s power… [Nevertheless] the centrality of ASEAN remains in place despite the involvement of extra-regional powers, like the US and Russia, whose position is ambivalent, in the EAS, so there will be a dynamic equilibrium.”

He added that ASEAN had drawn the US closer to the region after a string of incidents in the South China Sea between China, four ASEAN claimants, as well as between China and the US.

Report: ASEAN ‘to keep its centrality’ (Jakarta Post, 15 Nov 2011)

UPDATE: South China Sea tensions ahead of Summits

Meanwhile, China has claimed territory less than 80 kilometres from a Philippine province, adding to tensions over the South China Sea, but a Philippine official said on Monday that the country dismissed the claim.

Energy Undersecretary Jose Layug Jr. said that China protested and demanded the cancellation of a Philippine oil-and-gas exploration plan, potentially involving 50 foreign investors, in the area northwest of Palawan province. The nearest area that China opposes Philippine exploration lies only 79 kilometres northwest of Palawan, making it the closest point in waters off Philippine islands that China has claimed “indisputable sovereignty” over.

Mr Layug said the Philippine government told China that the areas lie within Philippine waters. He added that the two areas are 800 kilometres from the nearest Chinese coast.

President Benigno Aquino’s administration aims to take the disputes to the United Nations for possible arbitration.

Mr Aquino also intends to bring up a Philippine proposal to divide the disputed South China Sea areas so that claimant states can use non-disputed areas during the ASEAN Summit, establishing a joint cooperative area. Mr Aquino is set to seek support from other countries at the ASEAN summit to form a united front against the Chinese claims.

Report: Philippines Rejects Latest China Claim (Time, 14 Nov 2011)

Report: Manila seeks ASEAN front against China on sea row (Today, 15 Nov 2011)

Hillary Clinton to visit Philippines, Thailand ahead of Summits

At the same time, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed Monday to the Philippines on a trip that also includes Thailand as the US continues to reassure its Asian allies of its staying power. The visit comes a day before President Obama leaves for another US ally, Australia, closely following the APEC Summit.

Mrs Clinton was expected to hold discussion with President Aquino on sign a formal declaration that seeks to pave the way for future relations between the Philippines and the US. The South China Sea issue is also expected to be discussed. Mrs Clinton said the US was “updating” its relationships with its five treaty allies: Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand.

Report: Clinton to Philippines in US Asia drive (AFP, 15 Nov 2011)

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