Asean issues "extraordinary" bulletin
Asean has further consolidated and displayed its true self amid the Covid-19 pandemic in the most holistic of ways. The empirical evidence can be found in the 12,390-word Joint Communique. The 99-paragraph document requires a careful study as it is rather "extraordinary", as a senior Thai Asean official put it, in both substance and length. The communique this year encompasses elements and ingredients that will make Asean more cohesive and responsive in facing current and future challenges. Truth be told, Asean under Vietnam's chair took a painstakingly long time debating the wording, with lots of agreements and disagreements over the content. Since the communique was released late by one day, rumours ran amok that it might not come out at all, repeating the 2012 debacle.
The virtual conference has a unique advantage in that negotiators can be blunt due to the lack of physical contact and need for chit-chat over coffee breaks. In previous meetings, Asean representatives would sit together deep into the night and then spend the early morning hours reaching a consensus on what the 10 members would like to say. This time around due to the unusual circumstances, the joint communique is pretty strong in asserting the grouping's current strategic thinking between themselves and the outside world on all possible challenges.
Asean is mindful that the whole world is watching how the bloc is moving forward in facing the pandemic and its comprehensive economic recovery plan amid growing regional tensions. Although the joint communique contains the whole gamut of all Asean discussions, agendas, action plans, as well as work in progress in all sectoral bodies, key regional issues such as the South China Sea dispute, the Korean Peninsula and the Rakhine crisis were the bones of contention that dominated the discussions and media headlines. Among others, the joint communique highlights three major issues: maritime security and cooperation, Asean's external relations and post Covid-19 recovery plans.
On maritime security and cooperation, the joint communique has for the first tie adopted the UN language as appears in the United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/74/19, "emphasizing, in the Preamble, the universal and unified character of the 1982 UNCLOS, and reaffirming that the Convention sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out and is of strategic importance as the basis for national, regional and global action and cooperation in the marine sector".
Indeed, last week's communique reflects the Asean members' concern at the increased hostility and trust deficits between the US and China. Asean has been very cautious in walking a tightrope between these two superpowers, which have substantive economic and security stakes in the region. No Asean members would like to jeopardise the grouping's overall ties with the US and China. From Asean's perspective, Asean continues to possess the unmatched convening power for major global players to interact with one another. The Asean Regional Forum (ARF) is a good case study. Since its inception in 1995, the ARF still is a key platform for dialogue on regional political and security issues of common interest and concern which can turn tension and confrontation to cooperation. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai reminded the ARF participants on Saturday not to lose sight of the so-called "magic touch" of the ARF gathering.
That helps to explain why Asean continues to stress the importance of multilateralism and regionalism as it continues to diversify and promote ties with external powers. For instance, Asean has decided to consider the UK's official proposal to become a full dialogue partner next year. Senior officials will further deliberate the issue before submitting a recommendation to the next Asean chair, Brunei Darussalam. Asean has not admitted a new full dialogue partner for the past 25 years. Meanwhile, both France and Italy have been accorded development partner status joining Germany and Chile. This new trend also indicates the desire of powerful EU members to engage Asean in specific ways. Both France and Germany also have their own Indo-Pacific strategies.
This year Morocco and Bahrain are two new signatories to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC). Now there are 40 TAC signatories, including all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which covers all geographical locations and further uplifts the status of the Asean code of conduct. Today, a total of 93 countries have their ambassadors accredited to the Jakarta-based Asean Secretariat.
In addition, Asean and Australia will also institutionalise their annual summit next year in Brunei. Canberra will join China, the US, Japan, South Korea and India, which have an annual summit with Asean. Currently, only two dialogue partners, the European Union and Canada, have not been upgraded to strategic partners. Last year, Asean agreed in principle to accord the strategic status to the EU pending a long-overdue settlement over palm-oil issues. After years of inertia, Canada will have to intensify its overall engagement with Asean before becoming a strategic partner.
Given the uncertain geopolitical landscape, the communique reiterated that Asean must strengthen its centrality in the evolving regional architecture, especially through cooperation under the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), in order to promote peace and stability, which are the prerequisites for economic recovery efforts.
On the Covid-19 pandemic, the communique devoted substantive space to addressing the issues. Asean stressed the importance of maintaining the continuity of the global supply chain, especially in medical supplies and equipment. It touched on the progress and ongoing efforts of Asean in combatting the virus and committed to further expedite all decisions made by the Asean leaders at the 36th summit in July. Enhancing cooperation on vaccine development and research as well as encouraging the effective operationalisation of the Covid-19 Response Fund are priorities. China, Japan and South Korea have already contributed one million dollars each to the Asean Response Fund. Thailand was the first country to contribute US$100,000 to kick off this special fund in July.
At the upcoming 37th summit in November, the Asean leaders will approve the Asean Comprehensive Recovery Framework and the operationalisation plan of the Asean Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies and Equipment. By that time, the world's largest free trade pact, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, will also be signed, and Asean will have an inclusive long-term plan to support post-Covid-19 recovery.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is veteran journalist on regional affairs.