So little time, so much to do
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So little time, so much to do

Thailand's time as Asean chair considered as 'fruitful' by observers considering the broad nature of the goals it adopted

Police cars, equipped with security cameras on their roofs, are parked at IMPACT Exhibition and Convention Centre to prepare for a mission to escort country leaders during the Asean Summit later this week. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Police cars, equipped with security cameras on their roofs, are parked at IMPACT Exhibition and Convention Centre to prepare for a mission to escort country leaders during the Asean Summit later this week. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

When Thailand assumed Asean's chairmanship earlier in the year, the kingdom had high hopes for the bloc, because this year, the helm of the region returns to its very birthplace -- the place where 52 years ago, the Asean Declaration, also known as the Bangkok Declaration, was signed.

Ahead of the 35th Asean Summit and its related meetings, which are due to take place in Bangkok between Nov 2-4, academics and observers see three major documents and/or framework agreements having been signed already -- the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in the Asean Region and the Asean Framework of Action on Marine Debris -- as Thailand's big achievements this year.

All were endorsed and adopted by Asean leaders during the 34th Asean Summit in back in June.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist Panitan Wattanayagorn said the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific should be seen as an important achievement as it outlines Asean's own approach and pace when it comes to dealing with the Indo-Pacific.

In the past, major powers sometimes claimed and/or assumed that Asean, as a bloc, will automatically fall in line with their own respective strategies for the region, he said.

"With the signing of Asean's own Indo-Pacific strategy, these powers will now have to refer to the blueprint which clearly outlines our own stance," he added.

"This way, no one can use Asean as a whole to surround and/or keep anybody away."

Assoc Prof Panitan added that while there has also not been much progress made with regards to the dispute on the South China Sea, claimant states "have come nearer to an agreement", and there has been no confrontation on the disputed waters, at least to date.

"Asean, under Thailand's chair­manship, is currently working on the 'low hanging fruits' -- the bloc is doing what it can to promote harmony by staging joint activities that shift the narrative away from the conflict," he said.

"These small initiatives can be regarded as progress," he added.

Assoc Prof Panitan also said Thailand should receive some credit for its role in mediating the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine state -- despite the fact there have been no permanent solutions to the long-simmering settlement issue.

"This will take some time as TICA [Thailand International Cooperation Agency] needs to gather information in order for it to channel humanitarian assistance," he said.

"Bear in mind that the issue has been handled in a very bureaucratic manner," he said suggesting it is similar to the way the Thai government works.

According to Assoc Prof Panitan, the fact Myanmar allowed humanitarian assistance from Asean, the United Nations, and some -- though not all -- international aid agencies, should be "counted as a success".

"We need to give Myanmar some time and respect their comfort level. We will only relay information -- no naming, no shaming, as we don't do that to our friends," said the adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, before highlighting that Thailand managed to convince Myanmar that it is possible to cooperate with the international community without making itself vulnerable to outside interference.

Similarly, Suthad Setboonsarng, a board member of the Bank of Thailand and a former deputy secretary-general for the Asean Secretariat, agreed that the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific is a major achievement.

Nevertheless, he said Asean should have worked harder to finish the negotiations on the RCEP.

"Asean should have looked for ways to handle the impact from the over-saturated state of developed countries' markets, but everyone seems to be only thinking about how to benefit from the trade war [between the United States and China]," Mr Suthad said.

According to Mr Suthad, to ensure sustainable economic development in the next decade across Asia, more studies need to be carried out to make markets more connected to one another.

"RCEP is the key as it is a framework that will regulate trade and investment in the region," he said.

Similar to Assoc Prof Panitan, Mr Suthad said that a shift in the way nations see the South China Sea dispute needs to be reviewed.

"It should be seen in terms of its value in keeping up energy and economic security, rather than for its military, political, and/or strategic value -- especially considering that the sea is an important route to transport oil to/from East Asia," he said.

Independent development specialist Apichai Sunchindah said Thailand has done well in terms of fulfilling the pledges it made during the chairmanship handover ceremony in Singapore last year.

"With the theme of 'Advancing Partnership for Sustainability', Thailand has indeed enhanced partnership and continued the work initiated by the previous chairs -- such as the Philippines and Singapore -- to handle many multidimensional challenges, including illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and promoting a "green" economy.

However, Mr Apichai said that he wondered where Asean went wrong when it comes to the problem of transboundary haze -- an issue that continues to linger despite the high awareness among members about the dangers of transboundary pollution, the number of agreements as well as joint-operations among its member states.

Likewise, Kaewkamol Pitakdumrongkit, assistant professor and deputy head of Centre for Multilateralism Studies of Singapore-based S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Thailand has taken a chance to contribute to Asean, especially when it decided to "go broad" with this year's theme.

"Sustainability' permeates many aspects of Asean community building, ranging from economic development to security. By highlighting sustainability and proposing initiatives such as sustainable fisheries, it helps raise awareness and enhance discussions and cooperation among Asean states about this issue," she said.

However, similar to Mr Suthad, she remains uncertain about the future of RCEP.

"Global uncertainties may provide an impetus for RCEP countries to conclude the negotiation as quickly as possible, but one must keep in mind that uncertainties may tempt governments to roll out protectionist policies to safeguard certain sectors or constituencies even more," she said.

"It can cut both ways."

For Asst Prof Kaewkamol, the issues to keep an eye on at the summits include the Rohingya question, the growing US-China tension and the impact of Brexit on Asean.

Thailand will officially hand over the Asean chairmanship to Vietnam on Nov 4.

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