November 2019


Lessons from the ASEAN Summit

This article was originally found on Bangkok Post.

As Thailand prepares to wind down its year-long chairmanship of Asean, it's time to reflect on the state of the 10-country alliance and relations with its dialogue partners. Based on what happened at the 35th Asean Summit from Nov 2-4 in Bangkok, the outlook is mixed.

Thailand's dream of proclaiming a major diplomatic success by bringing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to life was dashed when India opted out at the last minute. There had been high hopes that the huge regional trade pact would finally be signed -- four years after the original deadline of 2015 -- but the celebrations will have to wait until 2020, when Vietnam takes the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Despite the RCEP setback, the Asean summit and related meetings showcased the achievement of Thailand and the advancement of Asean in the international arena, said Piti Srisangnam, director of the Asean Studies Center at Chulalongkorn University.

At the same time, though, there are worrying signs about a backsliding of US engagement with the region. The relatively lowly status of the delegation sent to Bangkok in place of US president Donald Trump was the subject of considerable diplomatic gossip.

As for the RCEP, the 15 remaining participants -- the Asean 10 plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand -- are ready to welcome India back at any time. Mr Piti also believes Delhi should consider the potential upside.

"The pact will benefit every participating country, especially countries that have no free trade agreement with one another, such as India and China, and India and Japan," he said. "The deal will provide these countries with access to markets with immense potential."

The completion of the RCEP will also position Asean at the centre of a huge supply-demand chain and enhance the bloc's profile as a facilitator. However, without the participation of India, Mr Piti fears the pact may lose some momentum. Therefore, he thinks it is advisable to wait until India is ready, though he believes the deal will materialise early next year.

Despite the bloc's inability to seal the deal in time for the summit, he said, Thailand deserves credit for its diplomatic achievements in getting the talks this far, given the difficulty of the negotiations, particularly among countries that have no free trade agreements with one another. Even though there is some legal scrubbing that needs to be resolved before the signing in 2020, all 20 chapters of the negotiating text and all market access issues have been concluded by 15 RCEP participating countries. India has significant outstanding issues, which remain unresolved. Its final decision will depend on satisfactory resolution of those issues.

But Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces immense pressure at home -- from farmers, industrialists, opposition politicians and even the Hindu nationalist movement that backs his party -- to stay away from the RCEP table.

Mr Modi won a second term in May with an even bigger majority than before, but the country is now facing a marked economic slowdown and high unemployment.

Mr Modi stated in an interview with Indian media that the essence of RCEP was not suitable for the situation of his country. But many commentators said the current domestic situation could not have been less conducive to the signing an international trade deal that would draw India's economy closer to the countries involved, including China.


For fans of diplomatic intrigue, the highlight -- or lowlight -- of the Asean summit was the frosty reception accorded the downgraded delegation from the United States. President Donald Trump was not expected to attend, but most observers believed he would at least send Vice President Mike Pence and/or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

So who showed up in Bangkok? The US delegation was headed by recently appointed national security adviser Robert O'Brien, who brought with him Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. A clearly unhappy Asean responded by sending only three heads of government -- from Thailand, Vietnam and Laos -- to the formal Asean-US summit. The other seven countries were represented by their foreign ministers.

Pongphisoot Busabarat, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University said sending just an "Asean Troika" to the event was a way to show dissatisfaction with Washington for sending its B Team, an act tantamount to a "slap in the face" for Asean.

"Asean countries have tolerated the US treating them like this for a long time," he said. "Sending an adviser to the summit is quite unacceptable given the diplomatic culture of East Asia that emphasises face-saving and making more than token gestures.

"President Trump's move was disappointing. Given Washington's longstanding interaction with the region, the US should have known better."

Mr Pongphisoot thinks the gesture will widen the cracks in the relationship between the US and Asean and will push member states in Asean even closer to China, whose presence is already dominant in the region.

The United States was equally unhappy with the reception it received. It sent a message to Asean expressing its displeasure with the "intentional effort to embarrass" President Trump, said a US diplomat who saw the text, speaking on condition of anonymity.


Away from the diplomatic soap opera, some real and pressing challenges to the Asean bloc's unity remain. One is its inability to tackle the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine state in Myanmar.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who led the UN delegation to the Bangkok talks, voiced his concern and called on the Myanmar government to facilitate the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. Nonetheless, he expressed optimism that Asean will set up a special task force to tackle the problem.

Mr Guterres, during his speech at the Asean-UN summit, coined a new term, "The Great Fracture", which got tongues wagging. Even though he did not name names, one can assume that he was referring to the rift in the relationship between China and the US. He fears this fracture will hurt the world economy, but he believes Asean can play a key role in resolving the conflict, though what the role entails, he did not say.

Amid the anxiety over the tariff war between the world's two biggest economies, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said progress was being made in talks with China. Speaking in Bangkok, he said he was "reasonably optimistic" that both China and the US could get something done.

Mr Ross said the talks for a "phase one" trade deal were making progress and that more sensitive issues would be addressed during later rounds. The progress to date should help reduce the uncertainty over tensions between the two giant economies.

"The completion of phase one will be a precursor to a much more robust agreement," he said. What's important, he said, is to rebuild trust between the two countries, which would make it easier to discuss more sensitive issues such as intellectual property and equal market access in the future.

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