The Trump-Kim summit represents an opportunity for ASEAN to demonstrate its maturity. However, disunity will prevent it from playing a leading role.
The landmark summit between the US and North Korean leadership is weeks away. The talks are shrouded in uncertainty. It is unclear whether the summit will offer progress towards denuclearisation. Nor is it clear what each side hopes to get out of the much-anticipated head to head. But with Singapore hosting the talks, for ASEAN, they represent a monumental opportunity.
ASEAN is in a strong position to broker closer US-DPRK relations
Pyongyang retains embassies in eight of the ten ASEAN member states, including Singapore. ASEAN nations also stayed engaged with North Korea following heavy sanctions. They are some of only a handful of countries to do so. These close political ties to Pyongyang make ASEAN ideal go-betweens for the US and DPRK.
The bloc has also had strong business ties with Pyongyang. Indonesia cultivated strong economic relations with North Korea’s founding father, Kim Il-sung. More recently, ASEAN nations were an opportunity for Kim Jong-un to circumvent sanctions. Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore all had formal and informal business connections with Pyongyang.
It is also in ASEAN’s interest to usher in a new era of bilateral relations
Before the sanctions, ASEAN made up a sizeable part of North Korea’s non-Chinese trade. In 2015, the Philippines was the DPRK’s third largest trading partner. Thawing US-DPRK relations could lead to the lifting of international sanctions. A deal similar to that brokered in Iran under Obama would restart ASEAN’s trade with North Korea. This would allow ASEAN-DPRK trade to return to, and even surpass, 2016 levels.
Playing a key role in brokering international stability would be a victory for ASEAN. It would demonstrate to the world that the organisation is more than just a trading bloc. It would show its relevance in international affairs. It would also give the bloc a larger collective voice in the international community.
How can ASEAN help?
The former Thai Foreign Minister, Surin Pitsuwan believes ASEAN can further US-DPRK diplomatic communications. North Korea is a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The hermit-kingdom received its membership in 2000, under Thailand’s chairmanship. It is the only international committee in which the US and North Korea are both members.
Surin suggested that the ARF is the ideal avenue to pursue diplomatic momentum. An ARF special envoy could effectively move between the parties involved. It could include representatives from North Korea, the US, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia.
Disunity will prevent ASEAN from playing a central role beyond hosting
ASEAN is unlikely to realise its dreams as a broker for stability on the Korean peninsula. Internal divisions undermine the bloc’s ability to act as an effective go-between.
These divisions were clear following Singapore’s appointment as the summit’s host. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha lamented the oversight of Bangkok as the destination of choice. Rather than celebrate Singapore’s triumph, the Thai response showed ill spirit. ASEAN’s success on the international stage requires unity. Prayut’s response showed how far the bloc is from solidarity.
ASEAN has also failed to rise to the geopolitical challenge on its doorstep. A lack of consensus has muted the bloc’s response to tensions in the South China Sea. Its inability to produce a coherent response to its own issues will not reassure the US and its allies.
While the Trump-Kim summit offers an opportunity for ASEAN to show its maturity, the bloc is not ready. ASEAN lacks unity and consensus on prominent geopolitical issues. The bloc has undoubtedly promoted peace and enhanced cooperation in Southeast Asia. However, it lacks the necessary conflict resolution mechanisms to maintain stability. It has no measures and norms through which it could broker peace on the Korean peninsula.
At this point, ASEAN can extend its assistance in the form of hosting talks. But beyond that, its influence will be limited. ASEAN must develop collective solutions to geopolitical conflicts in its own waters. Only then can it live up to its full potential and emerge as more than a trading bloc.