Asean will need help with big to-do list

Simon Tay says a packed summit agenda with a number of contentious issues may see Asean struggle to meet the expectations of all nations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 6:16am

Asean leaders gathering in Phnom Penh for the grouping's summit will find their bags packed full of expectations amid global uncertainties and regional tensions. They must carry and unpack their burdens with care. Can positive steps be taken?

US President Barack Obama will be present alongside Chinese leaders, and the summit will be a first place to guess about the future of the world's most important bilateral relationship.

During election campaigning, US voters bemoaned the loss of jobs and Obama wagged a finger at Beijing's trade practices. It remains to be seen whether he will use the Asean summit as a first, informal opportunity to shift to a more positive note.

The summit will also reveal Beijing's attitudes. At the 18th party congress, outgoing leader Hu Jintao underlined China's ambition to become a maritime power amid territorial disputes not only with Tokyo but also a number of Southeast Asian states. Those 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 this summit, the rival and unresolved claims cannot be wholly ignored. Yet if discussion is unbalanced, differences can be further inflamed, and for little benefit.

This brings Cambodia into sharp focus as the host. When the July Asean meeting broke down, many fingers pointed to Beijing's influence. Cambodia and China denied this, but the summit will be a second test of intention and ability.

Cambodia must be expected to discharge its responsibility to Asean as a whole. China has always officially supported Asean's central role, and should not divide and weaken the group.

Asean must work on the long to-do list as a result of the agenda to create an Asean community by the end of 2015. The summit will include the launch of an Asean institute for peace and reconciliation, and a human rights declaration. We can also expect recommendations to strengthen the group's secretariat. These and other aspects of the intra-Asean agenda intertwine with its wider role. Asean's unity and credibility are prerequisites and thus the community project is a key pillar for the wider region. This sets the context for another initiative expected at the summit. Talks are due to begin for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to link Asean to six Asian partners - the big three of Northeast Asia as well as India, Australia and New Zealand - bringing together more than three billion people.

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

It cannot, however, be assumed that Asean will be able to bear the burden of so many and such diverse interests. Other countries will need to show 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 in one piece.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. This article first appeared in Singapore's Today newspaper