A sneak peek at the 35th Asean summit

A sneak peek at the 35th Asean summit

A sign welcoming leaders of Asean and dialogue partners to attend the 35th Asean summit next week. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul
A sign welcoming leaders of Asean and dialogue partners to attend the 35th Asean summit next week. Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

Next week, the sprawling IMPACT Muang Thong Thani complex will be temporarily transformed into an international arena for talks between the world's greatest movers-and-shakers.

When the leaders of Asean and its dialogue partners converge in Bangkok from Nov 2-4, the Thai chair must ensure they will be able to hold constructive discussions which could bring about diplomatic balance and sanity.

Indeed, growing uncertainty and disruptive development around the world has made Asean stand out as a nimble and robust zone where economic growth has continued unabated within a peaceful environment.

At the Asean-related summits, rival countries will discuss joint cooperation to a never-before-seen extent. As such, the 35th Asean-related summit could lay a clear pathway to a more stable regional and global environment in the years and decades to come.

Before the 34th Asean summit in June, there were concerns that Thailand's domestic politics would impact its overall performance as a host. Fortunately, that was not the case. Despite a series of bombings, the Asean foreign ministers conference in August went well and produced tangible results. Looking back, it was a tumultuous but interesting year for the Thai chair.

When Bangkok wraps up its tenure as chair and passes the baton over to Vietnam on Monday, we will be able to see if the groundwork that Thailand has laid down throughout this year will bear fruit or not. The results of the Asean-related summits will determine whether Thailand has successfully achieved its objectives of strengthening Asean centrality, promoting multilateralism, sustainable development, preparing Asean for the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), and forging a closer dialogue and partnership among Asean members as well as its dialogue partners on various schemes.

At the top of the list when Asean leaders meet with their counterparts -- either in separate sessions on the sidelines of the summit, or at the East Asia Summit -- will be the much-awaited conclusion of negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). It is worth mentioning that the RCEP, which has been under negotiation for the past seven years, consists of some of the world's largest economies, some of them without any mutual free trade agreements with one another.

Until now, RCEP participants are still working on some "kinks". India, in particular, has stood out as the country that must walk out of its comfort zone the most -- for its desire to become a global player will not be attainable if it does not become a part of the deal.

The South Asian economy will stand to lose too. After all, as far as India's RCEP interests are concerned, it is a strategic decision that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has to make, and time is running out. The final round of RCEP negotiations will be held later this week before their leaders meet on Monday. Even if there is a last minute breakthrough, the world's largest free trade pact would still need extra time and work, given its complexity. Realistically, the agreement could be readied for signing in Hanoi some time next year.

At the upcoming East Asia Summit, the chair will pitch the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) to get broader support from non-Asean members which have not officially responded to the AOIP. In the past few months since its launch, the AOIP has provided a new impetus for an Asean-led multilateral cooperation.

Asean and some of its dialogue partners have started to work together to synergise specific AOIP projects with other Indo-Pacific frameworks drawn up by the US, Japan, India and Australia. The Thai chair will further elaborate on the AOIP's implementation and how it will be harmonised with other frameworks.

Central to the AOIP is the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which has attracted more signatories. Under the Thai chair, four countries -- Peru, South Africa, Bahrain and Germany -- have been approved to accede to the TAC. The 40 signatories are from all regions of the world. Recently, more Middle Eastern countries have expressed their desire to sign the TAC.

Other leaders might raise regional and international issues relating to the Korean Peninsula, South China Sea, Rohingya refugee, climate change, World Trade Organisation reform, and other issues at the East Asia Summit.

Over the past several weeks, the Thai chair has been working extremely hard to persuade EAS leaders not to miss the summit. All of them have confirmed their attendance -- except President Donald Trump. As in the previous year, it is not yet known whether Mr Trump will actually attend the summit. To enhance Asean's role as a convening power, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha earlier also invited the leaders of the UK, France and Germany as the chair's guests at the summit.

Obviously, without the presence of Mr Trump, the summit's profile would not be as high as anticipated. But the substance of the summits remain unchanged. Indeed, from Asean's perspective, if the US president continues to miss Asean-related summits -- including the Asean-US Summit -- year after year, it will undoubtedly affect America's standing in the region, which will reduce the perception of Washington's reliability as a strategic partner.

In addition to the three-hour EAS, there are six other separate summits which will involve China, Japan, US, India, the United Nations and Asean+3 (China, Japan and South Korea) dialogue partners. The Asean-South Korea summit will be replaced by the commemorative summit in Busan in late November.

There might be a surprise at the Bangkok summit if the leaders of Japan and South Korea decide to meet to mend fences. Both countries have indicated that they want to improve their relations. At the recent enthronement ceremony of Japanese Emperor Naruhito, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, raising the prospect of a future summit between them. In August, their foreign ministers met in Bangkok, but the mood was not amiable.

In total, there will be 44 documents which cover the whole gamut of intra-Asean and dialogue partners' relations. Fifteen documents will be adopted by Asean leaders, while the rest are either to be noted or issued by the Thai chair. As usual, China will sign the most agreements with the bloc. For the EAS, only three documents would be signed -- the Leaders Statement on Combating the Spread of Illicit Drugs, the Leaders Statement on Cooperation to Combat Transnational Crime, and the Leaders Statement on Partnership for Sustainability. Meanwhile, the Asean+3 summit will see its leaders issue a statement on Connecting the Connectivities.

The summit will reboot Asean's profile and assert its centrality in both economic and security matters. Furthermore, it will also reset the strategic ties with its dialogue partners.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs


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