ASEAN in Singapore

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations called the refugee crisis in Myanmar 'a matter of concern', a rare departure from ASEAN's principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of members. It also reiterated concerns regarding disputes in the South China Sea

The Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Singapore called for a multilateral cooperation against threat. The existing rules have come under threat. It is unclear that if new rules will be enacted and bring the association out of any kind of threat.

ASEAN is facing increasing external pressure including the escalating US-Sino rivalry in the region at this point in time. ASEAN leaders are worried about the tone of language between the United States and China going on this time. ASEAN members are concerned that the trade tensions between Washington and Beijing could trigger protectionist measures by other countries. The ‘America First’ and anxiety over a number of issues has been damaging international cooperation and tranquillity.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations called the refugee crisis in Myanmar ‘a matter of concern’, a rare departure from ASEAN’s principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of members. It also reiterated concerns regarding disputes in the South China Sea.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in the ASEAN-India Breakfast Summit in Singapore and underlined the need for maritime cooperation and centrality of trade for the prosperity of the strategic Indo-Pacific region. He also held separate bilateral meetings with the premiers of Singapore, Australia and Thailand and discussed ways to further strengthen ties in areas of trade, defence and security. “We are happy that ties with ASEAN are strong and are contributing to a peaceful and prosperous planet,” Modi said in a tweet.

Before leaving for Singapore, Modi said in New Delhi that his participation in the ASEAN-India and East Asia summits symbolised India’s ‘continued commitment’ to strengthen its engagement with ASEAN members and with the wider Indo-Pacific region. Modi also said he was confident that his visit to Singapore would impart fresh momentum to New Delhi’s growing partnership with ASEAN and East Asia Summit nations.

Australia has finalised a free trade agreement with Hong Kong, removing tariffs from the US of $ 12 billion in exports. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the agreement while at the ASEAN summit in Singapore. While a deal has yet to be signed with Indonesia, Australia has now entered FTAs with seven of our top eight trading partners. The deal also guarantees certainty of access to Australian suppliers of education, professional, financial, transport, construction, tourism and recreational services. Modernised trading rules on e-commerce, financial services, telecommunications, and intellectual property will provide regulatory certainty for Australian businesses.

Russia’s sovereign wealth fund has signed agreements with companies from Singapore on investment projects in Russia adding up to more than $ 1 billion. The contracts were sealed at the Russia-ASEAN Summit in Singapore. “Russia-Singapore investment cooperation is actively developing, including Russia’s ties with major Asian economies,” said the head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) Kirill Dmitriev.

He said that the agreements include investments in chemical projects in Russia’s Tatarstan. At the moment Singapore’s investments in Russian businesses accounts for more than $ 17 billion.  Singapore has recently recognized Russia as a key country for investment potential, and has been actively encouraging both Singaporean Government funds and the private sector to invest in the country. Russian President Vladimir Putin also attended the Russia-ASEAN summit on 14 November, paying a visit to Singapore for the first time. He said economic relations between Russia and ASEAN is ‘evolving steadily’ and trade has increased by 35 percent last year, reaching $ 18.3 billion. Mutual accumulated investment exceeded $ 25 billion. The first Russia-ASEAN summit took place in Kuala Lumpur in 2005. Russia became a dialogue partner of ASEAN in July 1996.

Thailand is ready to support a greater ASEAN role in resolving the Rakhine crisis, as the group prepared mechanisms to deal with the plight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who face repatriation amid grave concerns about their future.

The Rohingya issue was discussed in almost every forum of leaders of ASEAN and their partners from the Asia Pacific during the summit.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha told his ASEAN colleagues that Thailand, which will chair the regional grouping next year, viewed ASEAN as capable of playing an important role in addressing the situation in Rakhine State in a constructive, tangible and sustainable manner.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also attended the Russia-ASEAN summit on 14 November, paying a visit to Singapore for the first time

The group should enhance the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) in providing humanitarian assistance to affected people, support the commencement of credible repatriation on a meaningful scale and the improvement of the quality of life for all communities in Rakhine State. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said that he was upset with the situation in Rakhine and urged the group to make collective efforts to help Myanmar end the humanitarian crisis.

More than 700,000 people have taken refuge in Bangladesh since violence broke out in August last year when a militant group attacked security outposts prompting a harsh reaction from military’s clearance operation.

While many ASEAN leaders such as Mahathir used strong words in discussing the Rohingya crisis, most of them expressed their support and provided a comfort level to the Nay Pyi Taw Government to resolve the problem, the sources said.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang proposed during the summit that Beijing and ASEAN should finish negotiations on the Code of Conduct (CoC) to regulate the contentious sea within three years. The CoC will not settle territorial disputes between claimants but ASEAN aims to have a legally binding instrument to guarantee freedom of navigation and flyover rights as well as ensure peace and stability in the region.

Mahathir told his ASEAN colleagues at the summit that the group was not in a position to confront China and the CoC was the way to avoid conflict and live with the giant neighbour in peace.

The writer is a Consultant at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. He writes on East Asian affairs and China

Published in Daily Times, November 18th 2018.