“ASEAN Foreign Ministers Set for a Tough Year Ahead”, a Commentary by Hoang Thi Ha

2017/11, 22 February 2017

The annual ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat held in Boracay on 21 February provided a timely platform to discuss ASEAN’s priorities and challenges as the grouping embraces its 50th anniversary this year.

The theme “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World” was aptly chosen by the Philippines for its chairmanship year, indicating ASEAN’s perseverance in its outward-looking approach amidst rising uncertainty and anxiety over the US’ commitment and engagement in Asia under President Donald Trump. As the region awaits the Trump Administration to sketch out its Asia strategy, ASEAN Foreign Ministers should seek an early interface with their American counterpart to register the voices from Southeast Asia.

Also faced with headwinds brought about by the rise of anti-globalisation and protectionism in the developed world, ASEAN was left with little choice but to push forward inclusive growth, intensify intra-regional integration and connectivity, and at the same time double efforts to complete the negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Regional peace, stability and maritime security are two out of six ASEAN priorities in 2017. The South China Sea (SCS) therefore continued to figure prominently during the Retreat even as the Philippines and other ASEAN claimant states are seeking to reconcile with China and eschewing a confrontational approach. Reference to the SCS in the Chairman’s Press Release was an attenuation from the last AMM Retreat in Vientiane, registering the concerns of some Ministers and putting emphasis on the need to sustain the momentum of dialogue. The Press Release however reinstated “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes” as a tacit and indirect acknowledgment of the arbitral tribunal’s ruling in July last year.

The Press Release also underscored efforts to complete a framework of the Code of Conduct (COC) by this year. Such a framework could be a good step forward but any optimism should be kept in perspective since the devil lies in the details. The legal status of the COC promises to be another sticking point in the forthcoming negotiations.

The Retreat provided a venue for Myanmar to update other ASEAN members on the developments in Rakhine State, as a follow-up to the special ASEAN foreign ministers meeting last December. Myanmar military had finished its four-month clearance campaign in northern Rakhine, but the situation remains fragile and ASEAN unity on this matter still hangs in the balance.

As the birthplace of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers adopted in Cebu 10 years ago, the Philippines is pushing for the finalisation of an ASEAN instrument to this effect. Negotiations have stalled for eight years due to fundamental differences between the sending and receiving ASEAN states on the legal status and coverage of the instrument regarding undocumented migrant workers and family members of migrant workers. A retreat of ASEAN Labour Ministers on 19-20 February in Davao City has agreed on almost all aspects of these contentious issues so that the draft instrument could be finalised by April 2017 as an outcome document of the Philippine chairmanship.

Hoang Thi Ha is Fellow at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

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