ASEAN integration next on the agenda

ASEAN integration next on the agenda
(L-R) Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, Laos' Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Philippines' Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario, Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam, Thailand's Foreign Ministry Permanent Secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow, Vietnam's Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Myanmar's Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, Malaysia's Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, Brunei's Foreign Minister Prince Mohamed Bolkiah, Cambodia's Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh pose for a group photo during the opening ceremony of the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting, at the Myanmar International Convention Centre (MICC) in Naypyitaw August 8, 2014.

As the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders' meeting in Beijing draws to a close today, the spotlight will shift to Myanmar's capital where the ASEAN Summit and related meetings begin tomorrow.

All 10 ASEAN leaders, including Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, will meet as a group tomorrow to take stock of their progress as ASEAN becomes a closer-knit community by end-2015.

A key focus of leaders will be ensuring that ASEAN stays central and in control over whatever happens in the region, whether it is resolving tensions in the South China Sea or strengthening ASEAN integration.

Fortunately, the regional landscape is more benign this time round, allowing leaders to also tackle longer-term issues like sustainable development, and how they can strengthen ASEAN's lean bureaucracy and the grouping.

Aiding them is the fact that temperatures in the South China Sea appear to have cooled, as Beijing seeks to manage its image and win support from South-east Asian countries for its plans for a 21st century maritime Silk Road and greater security cooperation with the grouping.

As in recent summits, China, which will take part in the East Asia Summit on Thursday followed by the ASEAN-China summit and the ASEAN plus three summit, has already dominated headlines on this week's upcoming meetings.

According to a leaked draft of a summing-up statement by ASEAN chairman Myanmar, which was obtained by Voice of America (VOA) last week, members will note "progress on negotiations" on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and underscore the importance of keeping up the momentum of talks. ASEAN will also stress the need for "regional cooperation in maintaining peace and stability, promoting maritime security and safety, and the freedom of navigation, including in (the South China Sea) and over-flight above the South China Sea", VOA reported.

Myanmar Foreign Ministry's director-general for ASEAN affairs U Aung Lin confirmed the leak to Myanmar news portal Mizzima and said the draft statement will not be amended.

Progress on the Code to manage maritime flare-ups, however, has not been as rapid as members would have liked. But a meeting of senior officials in Bangkok last month saw ASEAN and China agree to set up a hotline for maritime emergencies and push for "early harvest" projects.

"It is not stagnant, there is development and the leaders will take note of this," Indonesian Foreign Ministry director-general for ASEAN cooperation I Gusti Agung Wesaka Puja said of the negotiations on the Code.

China claims territories in the South China Sea that are also claimed or occupied by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, and tensions have risen in these waters in recent years.

In May, violent anti-China protests erupted following the placement of a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam and China eventually removed the rig in July, saying its work had been completed. Both sides have sought to patch up ties since.

The rapprochement has picked up pace, with top diplomats from both sides meeting in Hanoi last month. The move is in part prompted by the United States' recent easing of its long-time arms embargo to help Hanoi beef up its maritime capabilities, analysts say. Beijing's quest to do more in the region has also seen other partners renew their courtship with the grouping.

For instance, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will be at his first ASEAN outing, will make a pitch for greater connectivity and people- to-people contact between India and the region, including visitors to Buddhist heritage sites in the south Asian country, the Press Trust of India said. A project is under way to develop a 3,200km highway linking India, Myanmar and Thailand.

Mr Modi said on Twitter: "Our ties with South-east Asia are deep rooted. ASEAN is central to our dream of an Asian century, where India will play a crucial role. Am sure the meetings there would be fruitful."

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama, who will meet ASEAN leaders on Thursday, is likely to push for greater cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group and on climate change.

At the East Asia Summit on Thursday, leaders are also expected to make a stand on stepping up measures to combat the Ebola outbreak.

Most of the ASEAN leaders will fly in from Beijing tonight - all but Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are Apec members. This evening, Myanmar President Thein Sein will open an ASEAN business and investment summit, while ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh will launch an ASEAN communication master plan to better publicise ASEAN and its goals across the region.

zakirh@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on November 11, 2014.
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