Thailand assumes Asean chairmanship
Balancing interests will define tenure
SINGAPORE: Thailand is expected to push Asean to finalise the negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the South China Sea code of conduct as it assumes the bloc's chairmanship.
Although the handover ceremony will take place later today, with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong slated to give the symbolic gavel to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Thailand will officially assume the chair on Jan 1 next year.
Based on the timeline of political events provided by Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, the next Asean Summit is expected to take place next year in June. That said, sources say trade ministers present at the 2nd RCEP Summit preparatory meeting Wednesday still could not agree on key elements of the pact, such as tariff cuts and goods standards.
A government source who asked to remain anonymous said Thailand will push for an agreement by the end of next year.
"Asean leaders saw the importance of expediting the [RCEP] negotiations as delays would only result in a loss of opportunity," the source said. "However, each country sees its own limits.
"When they see the benefit of coming together, they must come together and discuss ways to compensate for the losses incurred [by joining the partnership]."
Once talks are concluded, RCEP will be the basis for free trade between Asean and Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand -- covering about one-third of the global economy.
The ministers' disagreement on RCEP's key principles comes amid the growing threat of protectionism in the global economy. The Singaporean prime minister on Tuesday emphasised the need for further cooperation at the 33rd Asean Summit and beyond.
The Asean Summit is attended by leaders from 18 countries who are also members of the East Asia Summit (EAS) -- which includes 10 Asean members, its dialogue partners, Russia and the United States.
Singapore invited International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde, as well as Canadian premier Justin Trudeau in his capacity as chair of the G7, while Chilean President Sebastian Pinera Echenique represents his country as the chair of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
With regards to the South China Sea dispute, China wants the first reading of the code of conduct on navigation and other activities in the area to be finished next year, and the three subsequent readings done by the end of 2021, sources said.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that Beijing wants to conclude the code of conduct negotiations with Asean within three years, news outlets reported.
Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are among the claimants in the territorial dispute.
Gen Prayut said at the Asean-China Summit that Thailand wants to build strategic trust by fostering further cooperation between Asean and China, "which will turn the South China Sea into a sea of peace and stability", said deputy government spokesman Lt Gen Werachon Sukondhapatipak.
Such cooperation may be in the form of joint maritime exercises between Asean and China, or the joint protection of marine resources, he quoted the premier as saying.
Separately, another source said that all Asean members agreed to help solve the situation in Myanmar's Rakhine state.
Some countries, including Malaysia, called on Asean to be more united in their actions. However, Thailand among others said that the extent of the help offered will depend on Myanmar's "comfort level".
"[Myanmar state counsellor] Aung San Suu Kyi said she understood other countries' concerns and insisted that Myanmar is not ignoring the problem," the source said. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 720,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled from Rakhine state in western Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Also on Wednesday, US Vice President Mike Pence said he wanted to see those responsible for the killing and violence in Rakhine state held responsible. At the summit, Gen Prayut praised Singapore as the outgoing Asean chair for laying down the foundations for a more innovative and resilient Asean.
"Next, Asean should focus on resilience, the promotion of sustainable development, and the development of an Asean Community that is people-centred, dynamic, leaves no-one behind, and looks to the future," said the PM was quoted as saying by Lt Gen Werachon.
To build a resilient and innovative Asean, members must cooperate to increase the value of regional trade, investment and the economy while promoting security, especially by addressing transnational crimes, the premier added, according to Lt Werachon.
During separate meetings with New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera Echenique, Gen Prayut promoted cooperation in trade and investment.
Gen Prayut said Thailand would attempt to increase the value of bilateral trade with Russia to US$10 billion (330 billion baht) by 2020, Lt Gen Werachon said.