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The Highlights and Lowlights of the ASEAN Bangkok Summits

The recent 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and other related summits in Bangkok fell below expectations, providing fodder to armchair sceptics who believe such summits are a waste of time. But on closer inspection, these summits can still be viewed as a glass half-full in reasserting ASEAN’s regionalism in the Indo-Pacific.

 

ASEAN centrality at its finest

The centrality of ASEAN was in all its full glory in Bangkok under the current chairmanship of Thailand. The agglomeration of ASEAN-centered multilateral summits, which were convened from 31 October to 5 November, included the principal ASEAN Summit, ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and South Korea) Summit, ASEAN-China Summit, ASEAN-US Summit, ASEAN-India Summit, Mekong-Japan Summit, ASEAN-United Nations Summit and the East Asia Summit. The primacy of ASEAN in shaping the regional affairs of the Indo-Pacific was underscored at this slew of summits, with some yielding better outcomes than others.

 

As with past ASEAN summits, the focus of the joint statements was intended to reaffirm the commitment of individual countries to fortify the centrality of ASEAN, principally through the three community pillars of political-security, economic and socio-cultural. Continuing the theme from the 34th ASEAN Summit, the focus was on pursuing sustainability of meeting needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of succeeding generations to meet their needs. These include managing existential threats not only to traditional, but also to non-traditional security such as climate change and natural disasters.

 

Efforts to re-imagine ASEAN as less elite-driven and more people-centric and people-friendly by way of promoting people-to-people diplomacy especially among youths had also intensified all through 2019.

 

Far from being seen as a proxy for the major powers, ASEAN is a useful fulcrum that manages great power relations in the Southeast Asian region. At a time when US-China trade spat shows little sign of receding, ASEAN provides a multilateral protective shield for its individual member-states through strengthening its regional institutions and fostering deeper regional cooperation both within and beyond Southeast Asia. 

 

India disappoints ASEAN

India’s decision to bow out of the mega-regional trade agreement known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) leaves behind a big void as India is one of the world’s fastest-growing trillion-dollar economies. India’s pull-out also dashed hopes of potentially sealing the RCEP deal in Bangkok after years of laborious negotiations, including direct talks with India to allay concerns and achieve a resolution.

 

But India’s open announcement on RCEP finally gave the green light for the other RCEP member-countries to now move ahead to resolve any remaining issues and reach a deal among themselves. India may even be doing them a favour by getting out of the way so as not to be a hurdle in getting RCEP over the line.

 

Although the other RCEP member-countries would prefer India to come on board, principally Singapore which has acted as the interlocutor from the beginning and Indonesia which has strengthened its maritime relations with India, they reaffirmed their commitment to get this trade deal done, with or without India. They are looking to reach an agreement by the next round of summits in 2020, which will occur in Vietnam.

 

While the door remains ajar for India to join the RCEP in the future, this is unlikely to take place under a Narendra Modi-led BJP government due to domestic political exigencies, as evidenced by a wave of anti-RCEP protests and lobbying by local businesses. It is unlikely to occur even under a Congress government, which has sought to take credit for compelling the BJP government to pull out of the RCEP. At this point, it is a delusion to think India will join RCEP, as RCEP + India seems more and more like a pipe-dream.

 

Rebuffing the RCEP contradicts India’s ‘Act East’ Policy of engaging eastwards, particularly Southeast Asia. Had India brought the RCEP into fruition, it could have been the pinnacle of the country’s ‘Act East’ Policy. Rather, India’s ‘Act East’ Policy suffered a setback with Prime Minister Modi pulling India out of the RCEP. India will now focus more on strengthening bilateral relations with individual countries in Southeast Asia, and on prioritizing minilateralist regional organisations such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation.

 

It was also a missed opportunity for India not to have leveraged on the RCEP to bring closer the diverse regions of South Asia and Southeast Asia. This is because India can actually serve as a strategic gateway and act as a torchbearer of South Asian countries economically engaging Southeast Asia in a big way.

 

The disinterested United States

The absence of the US President Donald Trump from the ASEAN-US Summit reiterates the notion that he does not prioritize Southeast Asia in US foreign policy, and finds multilateralism to be unimportant. As a further affront to ASEAN, Trump dispatched a non-Cabinet member of his administration to represent him in Bangkok. As a tit-for-tat, most of the ASEAN heads-of-state chose to give the ASEAN-US Summit a miss.

 

Trump’s strategic ambivalence towards Southeast Asia, as evidenced by his no-show at two consecutive ASEAN Summits, signaled the receding US interest in the region and the reluctance to provide hegemonic leadership in the Indo-Pacific. The unavoidable outcome of American regional disengagement was ceding more geostrategic space to China. Trump’s insistence on transactional diplomacy premised on a quid pro quo has frustrated even countries, including those in the Indo-Pacific, that are sympathetic to US Interests.

 

Trump’s Bangkok absence may actually be a good thing as it has made ASEAN finally realize that engaging the US multilaterally is like flogging a dead horse. As an alternative, countries in Southeast Asia should strengthen their bilateral relations with the US. A network of overlapping bilateral linkages could provide a useful substitute to multilateral diplomacy in keeping the US engaged in the Southeast Asian region.

 

Governing conduct in the South China Sea

The ASEAN leaders accentuated the importance to finalize the Code of Conduct (COC), as the South China Sea (SCS) remains an arena for maritime contestation over disputed islands and waters. The SCS dispute remains an existential regional security matter that can destabilize the Southeast Asian region, especially if there continues to be outright naval confrontations, most notably between ASEAN members and China.

 

Notwithstanding the South China Sea fatigue, there is political fortitude among ASEAN members to keep a lid on this regional dispute before it goes out of hand as it would have dire geopolitical consequences. As such, the COC is meant to put in place a regional framework to govern the conduct of disputants in the SCS, including deescalating any conflicts diplomatically so as to keep the regional peace and stability.

 

The difficulty however is the lack of clarity on the legally-binding nature of the COC and the disagreements among claimants on how to bring the SCS dispute to a close. It remains a work in progress, but the longer the COC negotiations go on, the more likely there will be further eruptible regional flashpoints in the SCS. 

 

Expanding the Russian footprint in Southeast Asia

One other discernible positive from the Bangkok summits is that Russia has begun to take the Southeast Asian region more seriously though the auspices of ASEAN. This was evidenced by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attending the East Asia Summit in Bangkok, and the declaration by Russian President Vladimir Putin to pivot towards Asia in its diplomatic strategy to “Turn to the East” beyond just China.

 

Right now, Russia’s footprint in Southeast Asia is moderate and unexceptional as opposed to other big powers, but the potential is immense for deeper engagement in Russia-Southeast Asia relations. One is in the area of arms and weaponry which Russia has been exporting to Southeast Asian countries. Perhaps at some point, Russia may want to step up bilateral defense exercises with Southeast Asian countries. The other is in trade, either conducted bilaterally or multilaterally between ASEAN and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The EEU-ASEAN collaboration is the path forward for Russia to engage Southeast Asia in a more incisive way whilst also providing Southeast Asia with a gateway to engaging Central Asia.

 

Thailand’s growing regional stature

Hosting a plethora of summits as ASEAN Chairman reflects the rising diplomatic stock of Thailand as an important player in regional affairs, and an aspirant middle power from Southeast Asia. Concomitantly, Thailand has been beefing up its bilateral relations with the much bigger countries namely China and India and to an extent, the US which is its ally. Thailand’s foreign policy posture has rejuvenated in recent years.

 

Especially after the 2019 Thai general election, there is now some semblance of domestic political stability within Thailand, which has enabled the country to conduct a more active foreign policy in bilateral and multilateral terms. The trilateral naval exercise which was conducted recently between Thailand and the other two countries of India and Singapore is a case in point. Known as SITMEX, the main aim is to enhance maritime relations between India and Southeast Asian countries in hopes of augmenting regional security.

 

Looking ahead to Vietnam 2020

As the next chair of ASEAN in 2020, Vietnam is likely to build on the progress made in Thailand 2019, but may carve out its own imprint on regional affairs. A primary litmus test post-Bangkok summits is whether ASEAN can bring RCEP into fruition sooner rather than later. Sealing the RCEP deal would underline the centrality of ASEAN in advancing Southeast Asian affairs. With India bowing out, concluding RCEP should now be a low-hanging fruit for ASEAN in 2020 when RCEP member-countries descend in Vietnam.

 

One high-hanging fruit for ASEAN however would be to enact the COC by 2021. The task will indeed be difficult but not impossible to achieve. As Vietnam is also a claimant in the SCS and shares a land border with China, it has a vested interest to hasten the progress of the COC in 2020 so that it can be enacted in Brunei, which will be ASEAN Chair in 2021. No doubt Vietnam’s diplomatic prowess will be tested in 2020.

 

Like Thailand in 2019, Vietnam will underline the paramount importance of mainland Southeast Asia in shaping regional affairs of Southeast Asia, principally through the auspices of ASEAN. To be sure, countries in mainland Southeast Asia have begun to play a more progressive role in recent years, and this can only bode well for ASEAN, which for many years were the preserve of countries from maritime Southeast Asia.

 

Under Vietnam’s stewardship, the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation will likely be rejuvenated, and as Thailand and Myanmar are also members of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Bay of Bengal may well become a critical node for inter-connectivity and hive of maritime activity, and importantly, enhance regional cooperation between South and Southeast Asia.

 

Above all, the Bangkok summits have clearly demonstrated that ASEAN is greater than the sum of its parts although every individual Southeast Asian country must pull its own weight to preserve ‘ASEAN centrality’. Despite challenges confronting regionalism such as domestic politics influenced by excessive nationalism and globalization which has threatened to make borders and regions irrelevant, regional cooperation has not been hampered. It will not be smooth-sailing for ASEAN going forward, but as the recent ASEAN-linked summits have shown, the potential for regional cooperation is immense and it has intensified. Regionalism has reasserted its importance, with ASEAN being the paragon of regional cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

 

Author

Mustafa Izzuddin
Mustafa Izzuddin

Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, who received his PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, is a foreign policy analyst on maritime Southeast Asia and research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies and University Scholars Programme. He is concurrently a Visiting Fellow at University of Indonesia and Visiting Professor at Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah in Surat, India. He was formerly a Fellow with the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Visiting Fellow at Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia, Global Public Policy Network Fellow at Peking University’s School of International Studies, and Fulbright Fellow at Ohio University’s Center for International Studies, Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and East-West Center in Washington DC.

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