Leaders grapple with ASEAN’s thorniest issues at the 34th ASEAN Summit

Responses to the US-China trade war were front and centre at the three-day meeting in Bangkok. Contentious issues such as the South China Sea dispute and the Rohingya crisis also received attention, but longstanding policies of non-interference limit regional action.

By Zachary Frye

The 34th ASEAN Summit, which ended on June 23, brought ASEAN leaders together to discuss regional economic, environmental and diplomatic challenges.  

This time around, the biannual summit centred on sustainability. The bloc is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world, and sustainable development is a major concern for the region.

The US-China trade war received considerable attention. As the two biggest economies in the world are locked in a tit-for-tat tariff battle, ASEAN is seeking to mitigate the damage to local economies.

Thornier issues were also brought to the table. Aggressive Chinese movements in the South China Sea and the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar both rattled the summit’s cordial façade.

Leaders reaffirm commitments to the RECP trade pact

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECP) is a proposed trade agreement consisting of all ASEAN nations – plus India, China, Australia, and New Zealand.

With some of the worlds largest economies involved, ASEAN leaders are pushing hard for its implementation.

On the first day of the Summit, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha expressed confidence that a deal could be reached by the end of the year.

After the plenary session, Thailand’s deputy government spokesman said: “All member states agreed that the RCEP is important for this region because of the uncertainty of the world economy. The partnership will be an important strategy to drive members’ GDP growth and attract investments to ASEAN.”

The pact has been under negotiation since 2012. Disagreements between China and India over market access are the biggest obstructions to its passage.

The Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte urged the two countries to reach an agreement. “[They] must both take the high road and resolve their differences before the situation spirals out of control,” he said.

The South China Sea dispute was also on the agenda

Chinese aggression in the South China Sea has divided ASEAN nations. On the one hand, there is an inclination among some regional leaders to show deference to Beijing.

Cambodia and Myanmar – both under fire from Western powers over internal rights abuses – increasingly find China an attractive partner.

Economic considerations from China’s ‘Belt and Road’ infrastructure initiative also discourage pushback.

Photo Credit: US Indo-Pacific Command

On the other hand, countries like Vietnam and the Philippines have shown more willingness to go on the defensive. Vietnam, in particular, has proved difficult to placate.

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc made it clear that the issue remains a top priority for his government.

“Unlawful unilateral activities, including land reclamation to change the status quo, militarisation, [and] collisions that put lives of fishermen in danger are worrisome. These behaviours have eroded trust and are not conducive to promotion of dialogue and maintenance of peace and stability in the region,” he said.

During the Summit, ASEAN leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the swift drafting of a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. The document will contain clear guidelines for the behaviour of claimant states.

Malaysia’s comments on the Rohingya crisis raise eyebrows

In response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah called for the “perpetrators of the Rohingya issue to be brought to justice.”

Rohingya refugees.
Photo Credit: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations/Flickr

He went on to emphasise that any repatriation plans “must include the citizenship of the Rohingya.”

In 2017, over 740,000 stateless minority Muslims fled Myanmar after a brutal crackdown by the military that was characterized as an anti-terror campaign. The UN called it a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

A leaked ASEAN report earlier this month suggested regional countries were formulating a plan to return the refugees to Myanmar, which was met with outcry over the lack of safeguards.  

Despite Malaysia’s sentiment, ASEAN declined to collectively support citizenship for the Rohingya.

“We stressed the importance of and expressed our continued support for Myanmar’s commitment to ensure safety and security for all communities in Rakhine State as effectively as possible and facilitate the voluntary return of displaced persons in a safe, secure and dignified manner,” the leaders said in a joint statement.

ASEAN’s commitment to non-interference is both a gift and a curse  

Over the years, the ASEAN partnership has defied the odds. Not only has the region moved past its immense security challenges that defined the previous generation, it has also made immense strides toward becoming a world economic and cultural powerhouse.

To be sure, significant challenges remain. One of the reasons ASEAN has stood the test of time is its policy of non-interference in the domestic matters of individual states. But there are downsides to such commitments.

They might make it easier to maintain agreeable relationships, but they also limit the effectiveness of the bloc to resolve its toughest issues.

In some ways, the problem is inherent to international relationships. It’s difficult to find international solutions when sovereignty and autonomy play such vital roles in the global order.

At the 34th ASEAN Summit, the region’s leaders expressed forward-looking sentiments. This is a win for the region’s citizens. But sometimes the thorniest issues need more than mere sentiment.