“Previewing the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits and Related Meetings”, a Commentary by Jason Salim and Tang Siew Mun

Commentary 2016/53, 5 September 2016

From 5-8 September, leaders from countries constituting 56.7% of the world’s GDP output will descend upon the Lao capital Vientiane as the nation plays host to the ASEAN Summit and its related meetings.

Besides the 10 leaders from the ASEAN member states, leaders from eight other countries – China, India, Japan, Republic of Korea, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and the United States – will not only meet together at the East Asia Summit, but individually, most of them will also attend their respective plus-one summits with ASEAN. ASEAN’s strategic weight will be amplified by the attendance of world leaders like US President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

President Obama will be the first ever US President to visit Laos, a landlocked mainland Southeast Asian country that has in recent years drifted into the Chinese sphere of influence. In his last ever ASEAN Summit as President, he will be expected to underline American commitment to the region. However, the elephant in the room will be the future of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the centrepiece of President Obama’s Asia legacy whose existence depends very much on its ratification by the US Congress. Rather than preaching to the converted and “somewhat-convinced” on the staying power of the US in Asia through the TPP, President Obama would be better off trying to extol its virtues to an increasingly isolationist American electorate hostile to trade and internationalism.

With ASEAN and China celebrating the 25th anniversary of dialogue relations this year, much progress has been made in not letting the contentious South China Sea issue cloud the future of this crucial relationship. Although both sides have succeeded in negotiating a Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) that will govern naval interactions in the disputed waters, the South China Sea issue is not expected to feature prominently in the Summit’s agenda given Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to define it as a “bilateral” matter.

One issue to keep a close watch on would be the future of ASEAN’s much-vaunted consensus decision-making model. Long venerated as the anchor of ASEAN unity, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang’s recent statement in the Singapore Lecture contemplating creative alterations to the consensus model (even though only for supporting mechanisms) will certainly launch ASEAN into intense discussions on its viability and the possibility of an “ASEAN minus X” approach in some matters. Ultimately, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent warning that “if ASEAN cannot deal with a major issue at its doorstep affecting its members, in the long run, nobody will take ASEAN seriously and that will be very bad for all of the members of ASEAN” should be taken to heart, especially as ASEAN enters its milestone 50th anniversary in 2017.

Jason Salim and Tang Siew Mun are researchers at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute..

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