Southeast Asian leaders will focus on trade wars, the crisis in Burma and security tensions in the disputed South China Sea at a summit this weekend, but it’s highly unlikely there will be any headline-grabbing progress on the issues.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), formed more than half a century ago, has historically struggled with challenges facing the region because it works only by consensus and is reluctant to get involved in any matter deemed to be internal to any of its members.
The summit is being hosted by Singapore, an island state of 5.6 million people that is the smallest in the 10-member bloc, but the wealthiest and most Westernised. The group also includes developing countries like Burma, Laos and Cambodia, as well as nations like the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.
Asked why ASEAN took so long to take action on regional challenges, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said: “We can only do something if we get consensus. We need to do that because no other regional grouping has such diversity.
“But when ASEAN does decide and it does get moving, because there is consensus, I think we can do so effectively,” he said in an interview.
Singapore’s largest-selling newspaper, the Straits Times, said last year that even ASEAN’s five founding members took distinct approaches to issues facing the grouping.
The Philippines, it said, “demands ‘a legal basis’ for everything, while Singapore tends to ask ‘What is in it for us?’”
“Malaysia refers everything back to its government, Thailand prefers rule by committee, and Indonesia wants everything in step with its Pancasila [five-principle] philosophy.”
The situation in Burma’s western state of Rakhine, where hundreds of thousands of minority Rohingya Muslims have fled for neighbouring Bangladesh after a military crackdown, is one of the biggest challenges facing the group. The United Nations has said there is growing evidence that genocide has been committed.
“What you’re witnessing now is a disaster, it’s a human tragedy,” Balakrishnan said.
He said ASEAN’s focus had been on stopping the violence and delivering assistance but added: “The political responsibility and accountability have to be with the Myanmar government. They have to find a political solution.”
Buddhist-majority Burma denies accusations of widespread abuses and has asked for “clear evidence.”
Work in progress
ASEAN hopes that a code of conduct it is negotiating with China will ease the dispute in the South China Sea, one of the world’s most volatile hotspots and one of its busiest waterways.
Balakrishnan said substantial work had been done on the code in recent months, but it was still a work in progress.
“Frankly I was pleasantly surprised that we could actually put it all down in a single document, albeit with lots of square brackets and they are not necessarily reconcilable yet,” he said.
Singapore has previously said it would be “unrealistic” to expect an agreement on the code to be reached within a year, after talks began late last year. Critics have said the code, which is expected to be non-binding, would only be an incremental step since it would not force China to backtrack on its moves.
Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines all claim some or all of the South China Sea. China says it owns most of the waterway and has been aggressively building and militarising artificial islands.
Negotiations on the code of conduct have moved as well as they could under the difficult circumstances, Balakrishnan said. “Are the territorial issues resolved? No, of course not. Those will take years, if not generations,” he said.
ASEAN foreign and finance ministers will gather ahead of the summit and were likely to voice concern on trade tensions between the United States and China.
“From an ASEAN perspective, the ideal world is one in which America, Japan, China and Europe get along and work within agreed multilateral rules adjudicated by multilateral institutions … like the WTO,” Balakrishnan said.
“We think it’s a good idea,” he said, referring to the World Trade Organisation, which US President Donald Trump has called “a catastrophe” and “a disaster” for the United States.
“We do not wish to see unilateral imposition of trade measures, no matter how they argue them. Take it to the WTO, accept multilateral institutions, multilateral rules,” Balakrishnan said.