ASEAN Summit: Re-Affirming Unity Is the Key Task

On November 2-4, 2019, Bangkok will host the 35th ASEAN Summit and related forums, including the 14th East Asia Summit (EAS). Eleven meetings are slated to be held between the leaders of the Southeast Asian states. They will meet among themselves and with their dialogue partners at the event: the United States, China, Japan and India. This will be the second summit of the year, and will be chaired by Thailand. According to the rules, it should be devoted to issues of international and regional security, cooperation in the fight against terrorism, piracy and transnational crime, as well as meetings with dialogue partners.

Given the present situation, with ASEAN at the centre of the geopolitical game being played between China and the USA, no breakthrough decisions are expected from the upcoming summit. Thailand, which has been rebuilding relations with the United States after the 2014 coup and contributes to maintaining the unity of ASEAN, has been greatly weakened by pressures from China and the United States. The Thai leaders have to solve two problems: easing the contradictions within ASEAN and developing a shared position in the bloc’s relations with its partners, especially with the great powers. Judging by the results of the preparatory process, they have succeeded, to some extent.

Continuing the course taken by Singapore the previous year, Bangkok highlighted issues where the interests of the members of ASEAN broadly coincide. The agenda of the summit includes sustainable development, a roadmap for 2020-25, and is associated with the preservation of multilateral agreements on free trade and investment, counteracting the American policy of protectionism, the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution, the digital economy and other problems affecting the region.

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Of great importance is the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Statement from August 2, which expressed the general concerns of the 10 states about the growing tension in the South China Sea. In the context of the crisis on the Vanguard Bank in the South China Sea, the ASEAN leaders, while traditionally not naming China, for the first time came out together with a condemnation of its actions in the South China Sea and off the coast of Vietnam. They called for restraint among all participants in territorial disputes, for parties to respect freedom of navigation and flights over the South China Sea, and for a peaceful resolution of disputes based on international law and the 1982 UN Convention.

After the Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) in Bangkok on September 19, leaks appeared in the local press that this issue would be discussed and reflected upon in the proposed statement of November’s 35th ASEAN Summit. Obviously, this will be done in the same tone as during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Statement. The Summit should take into account the decision made by the PRC on October 24, i.e. a week before the ASEAN summit, to withdraw Chinese ships from the Vietnamese exclusive economic zone (EEZ). A statement on climate change and its dire consequences in the region is also expected.

At the meeting of ambassadors of 18 countries of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Jakarta in September, the agenda of the 14th summit was agreed upon, which includes a discussion of previously-adopted cooperation programmes. The Summit should adopt three Statements: on the prohibition of drug production and smuggling, on cooperation in the fight against transnational crime, and on cooperation for sustainable development. 

The ASEAN partners are expected to positively appraise the adopted ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which asserts ASEAN’s central role in the security architecture of Southeast Asia and as a bridge in the effective cooperation between two geopolitical regions: the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The EAS participants, as the meeting of ambassadors showed, will positively evaluate the developing process of establishing a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, although this process has reached another impasse due to the actions of China.

It is also reported that in one form or another, these actions will inevitably be discussed at the 14th East Asia Summit, regardless of the adopted agenda, especially in light of the recent exchange of harsh statements between US Vice President Pence and the Chinese Defence Minister. This indicates the on-going process of internationalisation of the conflict in the South China Sea in spite of China’s resistance.

On the sidelines, discussions will continue on the proposed Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership Treaty within the ASEAN + 6 group (India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand), which was planned to be concluded this year, but it will not happen due to the contradictions between India and ASEAN and between China and India.

The need for Russia as a stable presence in Asia-Pacific is clear, but its related successes are modest. Given the crisis in its relations with the West, Russia has initiated a “turn to the East.” Over the past years, it has boiled down to agreements with China, while its attempts to diversify its contacts and build relations with the ASEAN countries have so far failed. After the Russia-ASEAN summit in Sochi and the participation of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the EAS summit in Singapore last year, not much progress was reached. The need for a Russia to maintain a stable presence in the Asia-Pacific region, a key part of the 21st century world, is axiomatic. However, its successes in this respect have been very modest. Unfortunately, Russia has not yet learned to cooperate in such multilateral formats as APEC, ASEAN, EAS and others, which are beginning to play an increasingly important role in the Asia-Pacific region.

Russia has repeatedly conveyed its attitude and interest in a strong and steadily developing ASEAN. Russia and Southeast Asia are united by a common position on the most pressing international problems. The ASEAN countries need Russia to complement their traditional risk-hedging policy. Russia needs ASEAN markets and investments, especially in Siberia and the Far East. Together, Russia and the bloc need peace and stability in the East Asia and Asia-Pacific regions.

Russia’s main problem is its insignificant economic presence in Southeast Asia, both in the field of trade and investment, and in other areas of economic, scientific and technical cooperation. The share of the Russian Federation in ASEAN’s trade turnover and their share in Russia’s trade balance remain insignificant (1-2% and 0.3%). 

Four years ago, President Vladimir Putin put forward the idea of ​​a single economic space linking the EAEU, SCO and ASEAN. Many statements were made, even at the highest level, including numerous roadmaps. However, these have failed to lead to practical steps. The first was Vietnam’s free trade agreement with the EAEU, signed in Astana in May 2015. However, given the myriad exceptions in its content and delays in its implementation, this pilot agreement was unable to become a tempting example for ASEAN. The creation of the FTA with ASEAN is being actively discussed, but all statements by Russian officials are extremely cautious, and only confirm that the respective parties are still far from reaching such an agreement. This issue will be not raised at the upcoming ASEAN Summit.

Thus, the question of real interaction between Russia and the countries of Southeast Asia remains open. These countries have never been a priority for Russian foreign policy, and are not today. As part of a new round of revitalisation of Russia’s eastern policy, Southeast Asia appears to be at least a secondary part of the efforts. In the foreground are China and the countries of Northeast Asia and it is difficult to expect in the near future the release of additional resources and qualitative changes in this system of priorities.

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