Singapore hosted the 51st ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Ministerial Meeting (AMM) from July 30 to August 4, 2018. Chaired by Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, the meeting traditionally helps the countries involved keep track of their progress jointly for the region. At the macro level, it allows the leaders to formulate the directions for the regional organization through the ASEAN Leaders Vision. There is also will and determination to augment ASEAN’s centrality and strength through unity. ASEAN will certainly seek to augment its community building in the global arena where geopolitical shifts and disruptive forces — including anti-globalization forces and populism — are taking place.
Traditionally, before the AMM takes place, the senior officials meet first to hammer out the crucial issues. This is known as the ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting (SOM). Therefore, the SOMs are always useful previews of the upcoming AMMs. Observers can detect some of the pressing agenda items through an analysis of the SOMs and then follow them through the AMMs. These issues are typically discussed and brought to the table before the foreign affairs bosses meet for discussion. Such sorting out of issues at the upper intermediate level before the highest levels of management meet is useful in the high context political cultures found in East Asia. Sometimes, some of these SOM agendas are carried forward to the following year so it is helpful to look at recent SOMs as well.
In the 2017 SOM, the senior officials met in Manila on May 22, 2017 to discuss agenda items which included working towards the ASEAN Community Blueprint 2025 and making the agencies relevant to this initiative lean, coordinated and effective for future implementation of the ASEAN Community Blueprint. In 2018, another integration initiative was given a further boost by Singapore that proposed a network of smart cities in ASEAN and this was reinforced in the discussions at the 51st AMM.
The 2018 SOM was convened by Singapore on June 5, 2018. Vietnam was keen to bring about a self-reliant and creative ASEAN. Like Vietnam, Singapore hoped to develop creative and innovative ideas and a platform for ASEAN to move towards resilience, community-building and common development. In other issues of common interest, Singapore aggregated perceptions of common threats such as terrorism and extremism within the region. It asked for unity against terrorist acts. Cyber threats were also cited as an issue of common interest. These were no-detriment areas in which all major stakeholders can rally around.
Besides the AMM, the Post Ministerial Conference (PMC) was another opportunity for ASEAN to meet with regional stakeholders, including partners like China individually through the auspices of the ASEAN-China meetings to discuss external issues with major stakeholders in the region. They include the major powers, states and economies in the global arena, at least in the East Asian and Indo Pacific regions. China, Japan, the US, South Korea, Australia are the major players in the East Asian sphere of economics and geopolitics. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or ‘The Quad’ for short) consisting of the alignment of India, Japan, Australia and the US is at the core of the Indo Pacific strategy.
It was also an opportunity for ASEAN to meet with important stakeholders in the region, including major powers like the US, China, India, the EU, the Russian Federation and Japan as well as important middle powers like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the Republic of Korea (ROK). Externally, in the 51st AMM, both the US and China have announced plans to set up funds to work with ASEAN. Some of these talks looked at the shape of the regional geopolitical order and functionalist architecture in the region. The Canadian Foreign Minister for example was keen to defend the liberal order and free trade with like-minded states.
There is no doubt the BRI will be an important discussion point in China’s interactions with ASEAN in the coming months.
Not surprisingly, at the most macro level, the common concern and worry for the region is the maintenance and fostering of security and stability. After all, these are the pre-requisites for economic growth and development. The South China Sea had been high on the SOM agenda especially for relevant and affected stakeholders. Vietnam in the SOM advocated freedom of navigation and ASEAN solidarity as well as unity. Vietnam also encouraged the meeting to join hands with China to construct a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea that is complementary to international laws and norms. One of the most significant features is that the maritime emergency hotlines between China and the relevant individual ASEAN countries have been tested. All these augur well for progress, no matter how small or large they are. Cumulatively, it is a step forward for all stakeholders.
The 51st AMM reached a milestone with an agreement on all parties to adopt a single draft of the CoC. Henceforth, this will be the living document from which all other negotiations will take place. The Post-Ministerial Conference in Singapore on August 2-4 discussed some of the outstanding features of the Single Draft CoC. Confidence building measures are also in the immediate pipelines after the AMM meeting with table-top maritime naval exercises conducted between China and participating ASEAN navies. These exercises took place in August 2018 after the AMM meetings, while the field exercises will take place in October 2018. This is an achievement for relations with China under the leadership of Singapore as the ASEAN Coordinator.
There is hope on both sides (affected ASEAN stakeholders and China) to develop the CoC as much as possible with the goal of completion by 2018. The Philippines is probably the most enthusiastic ASEAN country in pushing forward with this goal. Singapore like other ASEAN countries hopes to have a CoC and takes the position of mitigating expectations in terms of quality/sustainability of the agreement rather than just speed. They are all striving for gradual accumulative steps towards progress, with full cognition of the complexities and complications involved in such negotiations.
Under Singapore’s coordination, Sino-ASEAN relations have done well and taken off in some aspects. Singapore aims to be a pathfinder for China to navigate through ASEAN countries and economies. Singapore is already involved in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI) and the Beibuwan (Beibu Gulf) Southern Corridor. The CCI is Singapore’s third government-to-government project with China.
There is no doubt the BRI will be an important discussion point in China’s interactions with ASEAN in the coming months. Agenda items also include the forging ahead of new infrastructure projects with Cambodia (including a USD 250 million ring road/highway) in the aftermath of the electoral victory of its incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen. Other items to watch in the coming months will be discussions of the future of the suspended Singapore-Malaysia High Speed Rail project with the recently-elected Mahathir administration in Malaysia, and the ongoing railway projects with Laos and Thailand.
In other developments, Iran and Argentina signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN countries. This opens the way for forging peaceful relations with ASEAN countries. It may also set the tone when the Philippines takes over the position as country coordinator for ASEAN-China interactions this year. The Filipino proposal is to make future CoC discussions between ASEAN and China about the no-detriment feature of environmentalism as well, especially to protect the marine creatures and habitat in that area.