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Asean

Asean in Singapore, Apec in Papua New Guinea: all you need to know about Asia’s summit season

  • From the South China Sea to the Rohingya, this week’s summits will see the region’s biggest players engage with the biggest issues
  • Here’s what to watch out for
PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 8:30pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2018, 8:30pm

Summit season in Asia has begun and a host of regional and international leaders have begun descending on Singapore where they will attend the 33rd Asean Summit and related meetings from Tuesday to Thursday.

Many of them will then travel to Papua New Guinea for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum this week. The poorest member economy in the bloc, one of the world’s least liveable cities according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, has already raised more than a few eyebrows over using Australian cruise ships to house delegates and 40 brand new Maseratis for the visiting dignitaries to ride around in.

US President Donald Trump will be notably absent at the meetings – he has sent Vice-President Mike Pence instead. But Russian President Vladimir Putin will make his first state visit to Singapore and substantial progress is expected on a China-backed free-trade agreement which could encompass nearly 50 per cent of the world’s population. We break it down below.

WHAT ARE THE SUMMITS?

The Asean Summit is a twice-yearly meeting of the leaders of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which they also use to meet collectively with leaders of partner countries.

In addition to meetings between the bloc and leaders of Australia, China, South Korea, Russia, Japan, India, and the United States, they will also convene the Asean +3 summit (Asean leaders plus China, Japan, and Korea) and conclude with the security-focused East Asia Summit.

This group of meetings will focus on Asean’s role in global economic integration and as the primary multilateral mechanism in the region for negotiating issues like conduct in the South China Sea.

The summits also provide an opportunity for Asean nations to address issues which threaten the stability of the bloc internally, like the planned repatriation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar from Bangladesh, a move which has been widely condemned by the United Nations and other international groups.

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“Challenges from outside Asean are diminishing the concept of the centrality of Asean, and challenges within the bloc undermine unity,” says Herve Lemahieu, director of the Asian power and diplomacy programme at Sydney’s Lowy Institute.

The meeting also marks the handover of the Chairmanship of Asean from Singapore to Thailand, which will host next year’s meetings.

The Apec summit will include thousands of delegates and representatives from 21 Pacific economies, including Australia, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Peru, Chile, New Zealand, Mexico, the US, and others, which collectively produce about 60 per cent of global GDP.

WHO WILL BE THERE?

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is hosting the Asean Summit and leaders from the 10 Asean countries will be there. They are Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xhan Phuc, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, Laos’ Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, and Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte.

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi will also be in attendance and is expected to face the disapproval of Malaysia’s iconoclastic Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, following the campaign of the Myanmar military against the Rohingya Muslim minority that the UN has characterised as genocide.

Asean leaders will hold informal meetings with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and summits with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Russian President Vladimir Putin and US Vice-President Pence.

The 10 leaders will then have a collective Asean +3 summit with Li, Abe and Moon, before attending the East Asia Summit with Modi, Morrison, Pence, Putin and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Guests at the summit include Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde.

Trump’s absence has been viewed as a snub but Pence, who arrived in Tokyo on Monday, told reporters en route that the US commitment to the Indo-Pacific region had “never been stronger”, according to Bloomberg.

In comparison, Putin’s visit to Singapore – with his deputy Dimitry Medvedev heading to Apec – has been interpreted as a sign that Russia’s interest in Asia extends further than China, and it wants to strengthen relationships with Japan and India, and support Asean as the region’s primary multilateral forum.

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At Apec, China’s President Xi Jinping will meet Australia’s PM Scott Morrison for the first time, providing an opportunity for Morrison to reset Australia’s relationship with China.

“Meeting with China at Apec is symbolic for Australia in a region it has typically considered its sphere of influence,” says Lemahieu. “This provides an opportunity to warm up the relationship but within the confines of red lines against foreign influence in Australia.”

Australia is also a member of “the Quad” – a grouping of the US, India, Australia, and New Zealand – the existence of which has been interpreted by some as a threat to Asean’s centrality as the primary multilateral forum in the region.

WHAT’S ON THE AGENDA?

The Asean members are likely to provide an update about their ongoing negotiations with China for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, while the summit will be the second meeting to negotiate the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) between nations that comprise half the world’s population. The deal, backed by China, includes the Asean nations plus China, India, Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, and does not include the US.

Li said in a commentary in The Straits Times on Monday that China would “work with all relevant parties to expedite” negotiations.

Karen Pitakdumrongkit, deputy head and assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ Centre for Multilateralism Studies, thinks the RCEP will not be concluded before next year.

“But at the meeting, they may deliver a statement re-affirming their commitment to arrive at a substantial conclusion by the end of this year.”

“The advantage of RCEP is its scale,” says Lemahieu. “Nothing competes with it in terms of how large an agreement it would be.”

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Singapore last month signed a free-trade agreement with the European Union, and a modified version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is set to go forward next month.

“There’s no doubt that smaller bi- and plurilateral free-trade agreements like those are case studies in best practice free-trade agreements,” says Lemahieu. “They are not competing with RCEP though, but rather informing it. No one expects RCEP to be as in depth as those agreements, but it will bind a much larger grouping of countries.”

Pitakdumrongkit suggests that nations which cannot comply with terms of the modified TPP may be motivated to agree upon RCEP sooner.

On Monday, Asean ministers signed an agreement on electronic commerce. They have also adopted a smart cities framework to use technology to improve access to public services in 26 pilot cities across Southeast Asia.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

The meetings come just a few days ahead of a plan between Myanmar and Bangladesh to begin repatriation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar, a move which has been condemned as premature by the United Nations.

Lemahieu says Asean leaders are expected to break with the tradition of not commenting on the internal affairs of member nations and criticise Myanmar for the situation.

“This is a calculation on the part of Singapore, Malaysia, and others, grounded in pragmatism and their interest in preserving Asean’s credibility,” says Lemahieu.

“Asean’s credibility is on the line here, and they perceive this to be sullying the reputation of Asean. Mahathir has also voiced concern that what’s happening in Myanmar also has the potential to deepen religious divides within Asean.”

Mahathir has long advocated for unity and cohesion among Asean nations in order to achieve the bloc’s potential. Analysts expect Mahathir may strike a more assertive tone than has typically been the norm at the summit, and that regional leaders will welcome him taking a stronger stance in advocating cohesion for the bloc as it balances the influences of the US and China.

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It is not clear if Li and Pence will hold separate talks on the sidelines of the meetings, which would be a prelude to a summit scheduled between Trump and Xi at the end of the month in Buenos Aires.

At the Apec forum, Xi will hold a meeting with the heads of 14 Pacific island nations as Australia, which is increasingly concerned about China’s influence in the region, also steps up efforts to boost ties with the countries through infrastructure grants and the setting up of diplomatic missions.

Additional reporting by Reuters