Major Takeaways From the 34th ASEAN Summit

Efforts undertaken to shed the image of ASEAN as an organisation which is beholden to the elites by making it more people-centric and people-friendly were recognised at the summit. However, ASEAN leaders also accept that more needs to be done to put ASEAN closer in touch with the ordinary citizens of the region, better educate them about the work ASEAN does, and foster a pan-regional identity among Southeast Asians. 

Contrary to armchair sceptics, the recent 34th ASEAN Summit in Thailand exceeded expectations. Defying criticism from detractors who said it was “all bark and no bite,” the main takeaways illustrated that the glass should be viewed as half full rather than half empty at the conclusion of this biannual meeting of ASEAN leaders.

The focus on regionalism as a strategic blueprint for ASEAN to preserve and advance the interests (and manage the complexities) of Southeast Asia was a dominant feature of the two-day event.

The summit iterated the 3 ‘s’ – stability, security and sustainability – as a critical framework for keeping the Southeast Asian region intact. Keeping in line with the theme of the summit, “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability,” the meeting focused on enhancing regional cooperation to sustain existing initiatives and explore fresh, sustainable ones in order to preserve and promote regional sustainability for both the current and future generations of people residing in Southeast Asia.

The most palpable takeaway from this summit is ASEAN’s development of its own collective vision for the Indo-Pacific region. As the crafting of ASEAN’s common position on the Indo-Pacific has been in the pipeline for a long time, having been delayed due to differing views among ASEAN countries, the “ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific” was a crowning achievement of the 34th ASEAN summit.

Coming to an agreement vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific suggests that the traditional norms of musyawarah (consultation) and muafakat (consensus) are still germane to ASEAN’s decision-making apparatus.

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However, as a result, ASEAN’s collective vision regarding the Indo-Pacific became a watered-down document that serves primarily as an overarching framework for formulating regional policy – one that is rules-based, inclusive, and fosters strategic trust and cooperation throughout the Indo-Pacific region. It has been drafted in a way that no country can reasonably dispute the ASEAN position.

Indonesia’s leadership was instrumental in ASEAN’s development of its position on the Indo-Pacific, which appears to accentuate both a geopolitical and a geo-economic dimension. The Indo-Pacific is central to the thinking of policymakers in Jakarta, as Indonesia’s President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo is keen to transform the Indonesian archipelagic into a maritime fulcrum between the Indian and Pacific oceans. Indonesia’s penchant for closer cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region has led the country to forge a maritime partnership with India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

For a long time, ASEAN has been exhorting Indonesia to provide regional leadership amid the geopolitical rivalry of external powers and their interactions with Southeast Asia. The 34th Asean summit could therefore be a healthy start for Indonesia to play a more active leadership role to scale ASEAN to greater heights, preserving its importance in regional and international affairs.

One of the salient features of such summits is the practice of sideline diplomacy. Here, leaders of countries involved in a multilateral summit conduct face-to-face bilateral discussions on the side-lines, often in order to resolve an existing conflict between two or more countries.

In a similar vein, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met his counterparts from Vietnam and Cambodia on the side-lines of the 34th ASEAN summit to soothe bilateral relations in the wake of an intense disagreement over his remarks on the 1978 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.

The constructive step taken by PM Lee dovetails with the ASEAN way of resolving conflicts within Southeast Asia: peacefully through diplomatic means. This is in line with the longstanding code of conduct enshrined in the Treaty of Amity & Cooperation (TAC) which governs inter-state relations in Southeast Asia. The importance of the TAC in fostering regional stability was underscored at this summit in the Chairman’s statement, which praised the treaty as a cornerstone of ASEAN’s political-security community.

On the economic front, keeping in line with the 2015 establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community, the bloc’s leaders indicated their resolve to conclude negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by the end of 2019. RCEP has taken on greater urgency amid growing uncertainties arising from the trade tension between two of ASEAN’s key external partners, China and the United States.

Bringing the RCEP to fruition, with ASEAN in the driver’s seat, could help the countries of Southeast Asia capitalise on their economic interconnectedness in order to engender strategic composure and ease political tension within the region against the backdrop of the heightened US-China trade spat.

Interlocking China into a minilateral arrangement such as the RCEP could also assist ASEAN as a regional collective to better manage China’s assertive behaviour in Southeast Asia.

With regards to China and other claimants in the South China Sea (SCS) dispute, there was renewed optimism and urgency at this summit to bring to completion protracted negotiations in enacting a Code of Conduct (CoC). The CoC seeks to govern inter-state behaviour amid heightened tension in the disputed waters of the SCS. However, the jury is still out on when exactly the CoC will materialise.

The summit moved beyond discussing traditional security, essentially threats to a state; it also focused on non-traditional security threats, which tend to be transboundary in nature. In fact, ASEAN should be credited as one of the few regional bodies that views non-traditional security threats seriously. At this summit, Asean leaders committed themselves to coordinating their efforts as a collective to curb marine pollution, which harms the region’s biodiverse ecosystem and is poses a public health risk due to the threat of contaminated seafood.

Efforts undertaken to shed the image of ASEAN as an organisation which is beholden to the elites by making it more people-centric and people-friendly were recognised at the summit. However, ASEAN leaders also accept that more needs to be done to put ASEAN closer in touch with the ordinary citizens of the region, better educate them about the work ASEAN does, and foster a pan-regional identity among Southeast Asians.

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The final statement of the Manila summit is not an indication that it has turned a blind eye to the problems of the South China Sea. On the contrary, it includes a large section that reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, security and freedom of navigation and over-flight in and above the South China Sea.
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Hence, it is in the interest of ASEAN countries to prioritise interpersonal connectivity – chiefly among young people, students and tourists – making it a centrepiece of ASEAN’s sociocultural community.

Although there were indeed notable shortcomings such as the paucity of progress on human rights, including with respect to the Rohingya issue, and the lack of emphasis on rising hard-line domestic nationalist sentiments, the 34th ASEAN Summit produced more positive outcomes than negative ones.

Looking ahead, it is incumbent for all 10 ASEAN countries to continue to work together in unison to preserve the centrality of ASEAN in Southeast Asian affairs amid the elastic Indo-Pacific megaregional construct, and strengthen ASEAN unity and cohesiveness amid the profound disruption sparked by the discordant US-China trade relationship.

This summit underscored the relevance of ASEAN and the critical role regionalism plays as a necessary countervailence against the pernicious effects of nationalism and globalism.

With the 34th ASEAN Summit closing on a favourable note under Thailand’s able chairmanship, the next step is to translate regional commitments to practical outcomes. What is thus required is for spin-offs to be encouraged to deliberate over the issues pinpointed at the summit and implement policies and programmes to address them accordingly for the benefit of Southeast Asia.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.