4 big challenges for Thailand as Asean chair

4 big challenges for Thailand as Asean chair

The emerging concept of an Indo-Pacific region has Asean at its centre, and the 10-member group's current stance is to include its emergence with the Belt and Road Initiative and the Expanded Partnership for Quality infrastructure.
The emerging concept of an Indo-Pacific region has Asean at its centre, and the 10-member group's current stance is to include its emergence with the Belt and Road Initiative and the Expanded Partnership for Quality infrastructure.

Last week, Singapore handed the incoming Asean chair, Thailand, four formidable challenges that would define Asean's centrality and its relevance, not to mention the kingdom's leadership role. These issues are the nascent Indo-Pacific concept, the Rakhine crisis, peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, and the drafting of a code of conduct (COC) on the South China Sea.

Despite Thailand's decision to focus on the theme of "Advancing Partnership in Sustainability" -- putting a human face and sustainability on the Asean scheme of things -- these issues will certainly keep the chair engaged and Asean on its toes. It will be one of the most exciting years of Asean chairmanship and summits, as it coincides with the political opening and election in the kingdom. Truth be told, the Prayut Chan-o-cha government has to be prepared for any eventuality.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

First, it is about the future of the Indo-Pacific initiative within the Asean-led mechanism. Last week in Singapore, Asean leaders discussed all relevant ideas and strategies proposed by various countries since last November, after their earlier recalcitrance because of a lack of information. They decided to take up and shape this nascent framework. But Asean is approaching the Indo-Pacific concept in a holistic way, with other ideas such as China's Belt and Road Initiative and Japan's Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure as a joint effort by dialogue partners to deepen engagement with Asean. The timing is perfect as all major powers now are the grouping's strategic partners, including Russia and the European Union (EU), which were upgraded last week.

The chairman's statement said Asean would "explore mutually beneficial cooperation and create synergies with these initiatives". All these efforts must be carried out on "the basis of Asean centrality, particularly with a view toward promoting peace, stability as well as deepening trade and investment connectivity in our region". As such, Asean still has lots of homework to do to strengthen "an Asean-centric regional architecture that is open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based".

At the summit, Asean agreed to use principles proposed by Indonesia and Thailand that embrace Asean openness, transparency, inclusivity and a rules-based approach, in order to enhance mutual trust, respect and benefit as a foundation to develop collective cooperation. At the upcoming retreat in Chiang Mai in mid-January, the Asean foreign ministers will have the opportunity to fine-tune the grouping's positions and substance on the Indo-Pacific -- even gaining it a new name. By the time of the 14th East Asia Summit in November 2019, a full Asean vision for the Indo-Pacific will be ready.

Second, the Rakhine crisis has reached a critical stage, with growing international pressure on Myanmar and Asean. In Singapore, peer pressure on Myanmar and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi was at their highest, prompting Myanmar to seek further help and cooperation from Asean on two key issues: repatriation as well as humanitarian aid and rehabilitation. Asean will send a team to Rakhine soon from the Jakarta-based Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA) to identify possible areas of cooperation.

Under the Thai chair, individual Asean members will step up their assistance to Myanmar on the ground in areas such as public health, education, economic self-sufficiency, agricultural production, inter-faith dialogue and other areas. At present, Ms Suu Kyi has lowered her guard and welcomed additional assistance from the grouping. For the time being, Asean has urged Myanmar to implement memorandums of understanding signed with UN agencies and recommendations on Rakhine by the expert group led by former UN chief Kofi Annan.

Judging from Asean's past engagements with Myanmar on sensitive issues, Nay Pyi Taw prefers incremental assistance from Asean, depending on the situation in Rakhine. At the moment, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand have provided bilateral assistance. In particular, Thailand has the most extensive assistance programme in Rakhine, which aims to increase the local community's ability to coexist and earn livelihoods.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha receives the Asean chair gavel from his Singaporean counterpart Lee Hsien Loong at the Asean Summit in Singapore last Thursday. (EPA photo)

Third, as the coordinating country of Asean-South Korea relations (2018-2021), Brunei Darussalam made it clear at the Singapore summit that Asean must play effective roles in the peace and reconciliation process on the Korean Peninsula.

As such, the Asean-South Korea summit next year, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of ties, will be pivotal to increasing Asean's engagement on the Korean Peninsula. Previously, key players on the peninsula rejected the grouping's proposed role to ease tensions, fearing it would be too soft toward Pyongyang. After all, half of Asean's members maintain full-time embassies there. Asean members also trade with Pyongyang, but all export-import transactions were halted recently following US pressure and UN sanctions.

However, Pyongyang's ties with Asean plummeted in the past few years after repeated North Korea's missiles tests and the February 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un, in Kuala Lumpur. Tensions on the peninsula have begun to ease after the summits between the leaders of the US, South and North Korea in the past six months. No more missiles tests have taken place in North Korea and intra-Korea ties have greatly improved.

As part of overall support for South Korea's New Southbound Policy, Asean hopes it can help engage North Korea with the international community in the near future through its numerous programmes and activities. Pyongyang joined the Asean Regional Forum in 2000 but its attendance record was dismal and irregular. However, with its recently improved international profile and image, regional gatherings at the government or track 1.5 or track 2.0 talks for North Korea should be encouraged as part of trust-building measures. Track 1.5 refers to unofficial talks involving official and non-official actors while track 2.0 is an unofficial and non-structured interaction.

As chair, Thailand can take the initiative to invite North Korean leader, Kim Jung-un, to attend East Asia Summit-related functions to allow guests to meet and engage with other world leaders. Last week, Singapore invited Chilean President, Sebastian Pinera, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and International Monetary Fund Managing Director and Chairwoman, Christine Legarde, for a working lunch with the Asean leaders. In addition, Asean strongly supports the resumption of the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme and missile tests among the two Koreas, the United States, Russia, Japan and China. If need be, Asean can host the talks on the sidelines of the annual Asean Regional Forum's ministerial meeting, as all parties are ARF members.

Fourth, for the first time, China said the drafting of the code of conduct in the South China Sea should be completed in three years. The time frame will coincide with the Asean chairmanship of Brunei Darussalam. So far, all parties to the conflict have closely cooperated in creating an atmosphere conducive to further talks. Both China and Asean have reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of maritime and air navigation in the South China Sea, and recognise the benefits of having the South China Sea as a sea of peace, stability and prosperity.

Given the existing level of mistrust, Asean continues to stress the importance of practical measures that could reduce tensions and the risk of accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculations. Some East Asia Summit leaders expressed concerns over land reclamation and activities in the South China Sea during the discussion. However, they also noted progress made including the recent successful testing of the Asean-China hotline between their respective foreign ministries to help manage maritime troubles during emergencies as well as the operationalisation of the code for unplanned encounters at sea.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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