The significance of Asean's retreats

The significance of Asean's retreats

A Chiang Mai resident is startled to see a display of cardboard cutouts of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and other regional leaders in the traditional Asean photo pose. (File photo)
A Chiang Mai resident is startled to see a display of cardboard cutouts of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and other regional leaders in the traditional Asean photo pose. (File photo)

Asean's foreign ministers will meet for the first time under Thailand's chairmanship in Chiang Mai on Thursday and Friday.

This "retreat" comes at a pivotal moment, as Asean is facing a series of critical regional and global challenges that require leadership and clear thinking to reolve. In return, Thailand is hoping to get some input from fellow Asean members to fine tune its agenda and the group's policy direction for the rest of the year.

In Chiang Mai, the ministers will have about 12 hours to trade views on regional issues. The discussion will be a free-flowing exchange in an atmosphere of camaraderie -- just like when the group's founding fathers came together to conceive Asean in Bangsaen, back in 1967.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

It is interesting to note that the two-decade old format has been imbedded as part of the top echelon's consultative process. These days, Asean leaders are no longer shy to speak out their minds. Cambodia and Malaysia have even aired Asean's dirty laundry for all to see -- a far cry from the 1990s.

After the financial crisis of 1997, Asean was under attack from all sides for its failure to prevent the economic disaster. This was mainly due to the lack of frank face-to-face talks, free exchange of information and data (beyond the official and highly scripted statements) and views that could have mitigated the financial meltdown.

Amid the crisis, the continued political turmoil in Cambodia before its admission to Asean, as well as Myanmar's dictatorship, further tarnished the bloc's image. Asean realised that another round of "brainstorming" was needed. This happened under Singapore's chairmanship in July 1999, when the first ministerial retreat was held at Sentosa Island to discuss Asean problems and define its ties with the rest of the world. Since then, the retreat has been the main mechanism for Asean leaders to speak candidly, as well as to agree and disagree on "the most incredible issues" raised by member countries, as former Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan once put it.

Normally, the retreat is held as a gathering of Asean foreign ministers. However, over the years, this format has been expanded to discuss the crises of the day. In Dec 2016, for example, Myanmar held a retreat to discuss the Rakhine crisis, even though it was not chairing Asean at that time. After each retreat, common views and stands would be morphed into an official Asean position, when consensus is achieved.

Thailand is hosting the retreat in this same spirit. In Chiang Mai, at least five major challenges that have been highlighted from by Asean's senior officials -- the Indo-Pacific initiative, the Rakhine crisis, the situation on the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea dispute, and Asean's Vision for 2040 -- will be discussed.

After 15 months of reflection, Asean has finally come up with its version of the Indo-Pacific initiative, which contains similar principles and characteristics enshrined in proposals sent by the US, Japan, India and Australia. Asean's version is not aimed at any third party, and will contain five major elements: openness, inclusiveness, transparency, a rule-based international order, and the centrality of Asean.

At the retreat, the ministers have to decide whether to retain "Indo-Pacific" in the initiative's name, as proposed by the Trump administration, or replace it with a new one. Indonesia has been tasked to draft the Asean version, in close consultation with the chair. The new framework -- when it is agreed upon -- will reflect the bloc's strategy to maintain its centrality and relevance.

Despite the fighting in Rakhine state and the ongoing hiccups over refugee repatriations, Asean and Myanmar are committed to work together to address humanitarian concerns. Asean Secretary-General Dato Paduka Lim Jock Hoi met with State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi last month in Nay Pyi Taw, where she expressed confidence and respect for Asean and its future role in Rakhine state. After Asean's assessment team finishes its work in the troubled region later this month, it is hoped that Asean and Myanmar will know exactly what is needed.

The Jakarta-based Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre) will play a key role in coordinating trust-builiding measures in Rakhine to facilitate safe and sound repatriations. Thailand hopes that Asean will be able to establish a special fund to help Myanmar, and Japan has already expressed the willingness to provide financial assistance for this endeavour.

With regards to the denuclearisation of North Korea, Asean is expected continue to support all efforts to ease tensions and promote dialogue between the two Koreas.

That may help explain why Asean is refusing to downgrade ties with Pyongyang, despite strong pressure from the US, while implementing relevant UN Security Council resolutions. If progress is seen on denuclearisation and inter-Korean ties after the planned second Trump-Kim meeting, the Asean chair would encourage Asean to further engage and include North Korea in the regional scheme of things. In fact, Kim Jong-un could be one of the chair's invited guests for the early November rendezvous with other global leaders.

Negotiations on the code of conduct in the South China Sea with China are expected to conclude under Thailand's chairmanship. Beijing has previously said that it wants both sides to be able to thoroughly resolve the dispute by 2021, and its assurances to Asean to maintain the security and freedom to navigate through the disputed area have helped to foster trust between them.

Last November, both sides endorsed the Asean-China Strategic Vision for 2030. At this point, Asean is cautiously embracing President Xi Jingping's new concept of "a community of shared future for mankind". However, without stability in the troubled sea, China's new approach will remain a pipe dream.

One extraordinary thing that Thailand has done as Asean chair is that it has begun to conceptualise Asean's direction for the next 20 years -- essentially replacing "Asean Vision 2020", which has been made rather obsolete by the swift and disruptive changes that occurred in the past few years. While its goals remain relevant, Thailand has commissioned the Jakarta-based Economic Research Institute of Asean and East Asia to conduct a study of "Asean Vision 2040", with input from experts in the region. The chair will then report its findings and recommendations to the ministers in a report titled "Stepping Boldly Forward: Transforming the Asean Community".

Thailan's fourth tenure as Asean's chair is more important than ever. It gives Thailand the chance to renew its image and establish normalcy after almost five years of military rule, which is what the region needs to move forward.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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