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Commentary: Singapore goes for quiet ASEAN diplomacy

19 Jan Commentary: Singapore goes for quiet ASEAN diplomacy

By Simon Tay and Cheryl Tan

City-state seeks cooperation boost despite differences over Trump, China and Myanmar refugees

Singapore is settling into its one-year rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at a time when the region’s economic growth is outperforming the world. But the possibility of unpredictable political and economic changes both within the region and beyond present the city state with both opportunities and threats.

Some expect Singapore, as a regional hub and perhaps ASEAN’s most open economy, to take a strong leadership role. But the Singapore approach thus far has been somewhat circumspect. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the ASEAN chairmanship handover ceremony in November said Singapore would promote the theme of “resilient and innovative” and encourage its fellow ASEAN members to uphold a rules-based regional order to deal with emerging security threats, including terrorism, cybercrime and climate change.

Among other aims, he said his government would also push regional economic integration to enhance connectivity, focus on innovative ways to leverage digital technologies, and scale up the skills and capabilities of ASEAN citizens.

On the economic and trade front, Singapore intends to focus on e-commerce and the digital economy, according to its Minister for Trade and Industry Lim Hng Kiang. The priority is to streamline regional trade rules governing e-commerce, improve digital connectivity for businesses with a focus on smaller enterprises, and improve trade facilitation in the region. These are realistic and deliverable goals following the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015.

Lee’s statements do not reflect false modesty. They stem from a recognition of ASEAN’s strengths and limits in the face of huge shifts ranging from the rise of China to U.S President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda.

Trump, who visited the region in October, has been active in Asia in his first year, but his administration still lacks clear priorities and has yet to set out a fuller agenda with ASEAN. China has put forward a bold plan with its Belt and Road Initiative and, while still inchoate, this is re-setting relations beyond the competing claims in the South China Sea. For U.S.-China ties, many predict rough patches over a range of issues like North Korea’s nuclear threat and U.S.-China trade.

Politics within the region are heating up. Malaysia and Thailand are facing national elections and Indonesia, local polls. Amidst a mood marked by growing populism and narrow nationalism, these votes could distract attention from regional issues and slow progress.

Controversies, such as the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and along its border with Bangladesh, also require attention and can be politically sensitive and potentially divisive among ASEAN members. This also applies to efforts to increase regional security cooperation to deal with terrorist threats.

Closed-door sessions

Given these circumstances, consensus and quiet diplomacy has its uses — more so now than ever before. Singapore has already proposed that leaders and ministers meet in closed sessions, away from the media, to discuss sensitive issues in confidence. Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balarishnan has said this working style “remains ASEAN’s best shot at success” in managing the “very testing time” faced by ASEAN’s 10 member states, with their sometimes differing interests.

ASEAN’s “quiet diplomacy” is not well understood in this age when transparency is demanded. Public statements will be expected and the words that are collectively issued will be measured. Close observers of the group will recognize that decision-makers must go beyond public posturing to promote effective dialogue and trust on key political questions.

Given the complexity of issues, and recognizing ASEAN’s limits as a grouping of smaller countries, we cannot demand breakthrough resolutions on political questions. Instead, the hope is that ASEAN can nudge forward on key issues with major powers, while avoiding public discord among its own members.

On economic integration, the group has pledged to move ahead with its ASEAN Economic Community 2025 Blueprint, which seeks to enhance trade, investment and economic cooperation. This could add to the region’s economic dynamism. But other factors are emerging to limit growth prospects and complicate ASEAN integration. Even as the AEC progresses, technological changes make it critical to look beyond traditional forms of integration.

E-commerce, identified by Singapore as a priority, is a key example of this. ASEAN’s digital economy is expected to exceed $200 billion by 2025. Its e-commerce market size is expected to grow from $5.5 billion in 2015 to $88 billion in 2025. The AEC 2025 blueprint already identifies four key strategic measures for the development of e-commerce, including consumer and personal data protection and harmonizing legal frameworks for online disputes and secure payment systems.

Focus must be given to solving a mismatch of skills between different locations and to increasing connectivity in communications technology and physical infrastructure. Much remains to be done agreeing details so that national governments can implement changes to achieve a truly regionwide market through e-commerce. Access must be granted not only to global technology giants from the West and China but also to ASEAN’s smaller enterprises.

Besides the economic and political-security pillars, ASEAN has also pledged to move ahead on the third pillar of socio-cultural issues.

One area where these all three should come together will be the response to climate change. With the Paris Agreement, the issue requires not only that environmental ministries act, but also that economic and financial policymakers intervene. Issues such as “green” finance — adjusting financial systems to prevent harm and instead promote climate action — will require cross-cutting approaches and regional leadership.

ASEAN also needs a more “human face” so that policies are more people-oriented and people-centered. With growing populism and nationalism, this is essential for long-term progress in ASEAN integration. Longer-term people-focused thinking is particularly necessary in responding to technological change if ASEAN is to maintain rapid growth.

As the 2018 chair, Singapore can help foster a regional and global ASEAN mindset through incremental change and quiet diplomacy. Although things may not go entirely according to plan, there are no current proposals for a “big bang” announcement. But that does not mean there will not be progress.


Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and associate professor of international law at the National University of Singapore. Cheryl Tan is deputy director (ASEAN) of SIIA. This commentary was originally published in the Nikkei Asian Review on 16 Jan 2018.

Photo Credit:  US President Donald Trump, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte and Mr. Duterte’s partner Honeylet at the start of the ASEAN gala dinner in Nov 2017 / Presidential Communications Operations Office (Philippines)