The 32nd Summit of Heads of State and Government from member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held in Singapore from 25 to 28 April 2018 to discuss regional and international issues successfully concluded. Though ASEAN consists of ten ASEAN Member States (AMS) in a region of diverse cultures and backgrounds, it shares a common interest in promoting peace, stability and security for the benefit of the peoples of the region. The event known as the 32nd ASEAN Summit, was a special event that Singapore showcased at Istana and Shangri-La Hotel to the world how the ten member states with diverse cultures and different forms of governments are united when regional issues are addressed.
Singapore officially had taken over the rotating chairmanship of the organisation on 14 November 2017 from the Philippines when the 31st ASEAN Summit drew to a close. The Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had received the gavel symbolising the ASEAN chairmanship from Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith the previous year. The Philippines will serve as host and chairman of the summit again in 2027.
Soon after assuming ASEAN chairmanship, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had assured that ASEAN shall remain a dynamic driving force under Singapore’s chairmanship. He further observed that “resilience and innovation” will be the focus in a world that is “rapidly changing”. Lee called ASEAN the ‘lifeboat’ of Southeast Asian countries. In his speech at the closing ceremony of the summit on 14 November in Manila, Lee had reiterated ASEAN’s resolve to “promote and uphold a rules-based regional order” so that the “emerging security challenges such as cyber security, transnational crime and terrorism” are better addressed. A stable regional order could create the right environment for the region to grow economically and expand markets and therefore there is a greater urgency to seize the opportunity now than ever before.
In Singapore under Lee’s chairmanship, the leaders adopted documents in line with priorities towards enhancing the bloc’s resilience and innovation.
China’s muscle-flexing and assertiveness on certain regional issues has created a sense of unease in many nations in the region. The South China Sea has emerged as a major flashpoint. This area of ocean space is believed to possess a huge quantity of precious raw materials and natural resources in the ocean bed. There are half a dozen countries which make sovereignty claims on this part of the sea that are within their exclusive economic zones. While Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia make sovereignty claims to areas of the sea contiguous to their land territory, China makes claims to the South China Sea in its entirety. In order to reinforce and legitimise its claims, it has started island building activities and slowly militarising too, sending fears to smaller nations of the region having stakes on parts of the ocean space.
The South China Sea is extremely important for maritime trade. A tune of $5 trillion worth of goods traverses through this part of the sea every year. Any unilateral action by a certain power in utter disregard and disrespect of global rules are unacceptable to any law-abiding country. The ASEAN member states seriously worked out to build consensus on designing a Code of Conduct (COC) of Parties in the South China Sea.
Singapore’s Lee was serious to address this issue during his country’s chairmanship.
Lee’s statement at the conclusion of the summit mentioned concerns expressed by some “leaders on the state of affairs in the South China Sea where China has been unilaterally building military bases. The revival of the word “concern” over the South China Sea came after the 31st summit in November 2017 was dropped in the chairman’s statement. This time, Lee’s statement was categorical in raising concern over China’s land reclamation and construction of military bases in the maritime area, which had eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace. In consideration of China, the statement also referred to the process of devising a “code of conduct” with Beijing to prevent disputes over the South China Sea.
During the chairmanship of the Philippines, a framework was completed. The Philippines prefers the COC to be non-legal binding, only a “gentleman’s agreement”. Being the country coordinator for the ASEAN-China dialogue, Singapore said that “while the situation is calmer now, we cannot take the current progress for granted”. In order not to infuriate China, Lee hoped to work towards keeping the ASEAN-China relations on the current positive trajectory. Earlier, the Philippines won a legal victory at the International Tribunal at the Hague that adjudicated China’s claim over the South China Sea of lacking any legal basis but Philippine President Duterte choose to set aside this advantage, though he and US President Donald Trump hit the militarisation in the South China Sea by China during their bilateral meeting.
Beijing remains undeterred and continues to reassert its rights over the South China Sea, making historical claims. With President Xi Jinping winning a second term in office and the fixed tenure clause being removed, he has the prospect for ruling China as long as he wants. This further emboldens Xi to consolidate his country’s claims over this area.
Reviewing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, Xi remarked the need to build a strong navy “has never been more urgent than today”. The idea is to project power in the South China Sea area by demonstrating its naval power in order to intimidate the smaller nations having claims. It has built the largest navy since China’s founding in 1949, in its efforts to build a first-class navy. In a recent review, China displayed more than 10,000 service personnel, 48 vessels and 76 aircraft, which included aircraft carrier Liaoning and latest submarines, vessels and fighter jets. More than half of the vessels were commissioned after the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012.
Notwithstanding China’s belligerence and assertive posture, confronting China may not be a good option than engaging China. How to keep ASEAN’s ties with China warm that once remained frosty can be a big challenge for Lee. While ASEAN has the support of the US, Japan, India and other nations that stand for respecting global rules of governance, Lee would be under considerable pressure from China and the US as they vie for political control of the region. Whether Lee can be successful to hedge, balance and manoeuvre between the US and China while keeping the interests of the ASEAN bloc as top priority can be a crucial test for him.
Beijing prefers to deal with countries involved in South China Sea issue bilaterally. China now fears that Singapore could try to “internationalise” the issue. The US, like others, wants the issue settled peacefully, in accordance with existing international rules and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Lee’s another challenge could be to make best efforts to forge unity vis-à-vis that of China as the latter is trying its best to create fissures within the ASEAN organisation.
In the past Beijing seemed to have succeeded to garner support from Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines for its position that the South China Sea disputes should be negotiated by the countries directly concerned. Though Philippines won a legal battle at The Hague court in its favour, there seemed to be a turnaround after Duterte came to power. However, by supporting Vietnam’s strong objection to China on the South China Sea issue, the US is contributed to prevent ASEAN disunity. Though Singapore itself is not a claimant to the South China Sea dispute, it has often come under Beijing’s displeasure as Singapore fights for the cause for ASEAN. Its responsibility now shall be greater than before to defend the cause of ASEAN as it is the chair in 2018. It would be diplomatic tight-rope for Singapore to argue before Beijing that it remains neutral between the US and China on the South China Sea dispute.
Though Singapore does not have any maritime claim on the area under dispute, it does support a “rules-based international order”. Such a stance is no different from the majority view of other nations, and that is maintaining the status quo international system. This also includes the implementation of the July 2016 international arbitration decision against China’s claims, which China has rejected. Singapore endorses the principle of protecting “freedom of navigation”, which also means freedom to undertake surveillance probes in China’s exclusive economic zone. For Singapore, it means freedom of commercial navigation, which helps the US to play out its public diplomacy but angers Beijing at the same time.
At the conclusion of the summit, Lee announced three documents: ASEAN Leaders’ Vision for a Resilient and Innovative ASEAN, the ASEAN Leaders’ Statement on Cyber security and the ASEAN Smart Cities Network. He also announced the completion of the Model ASEAN Extradition Treaty, the renewed Singapore-ASEAN Youth Fund and the establishment of the ASEAN Law Academy, an annual training programme in Singapore.
The other issues that figured prominently in the discussion were the ways to promote economic integration and connectivity to keep the peoples of Southeast Asia prosperous. Lee is keen to find ways to manage and harness digital technologies, and equip the citizens with skills and capabilities so that ASEAN as an organisation remains vibrant and dynamic. While Philippines’ theme during its chairmanship was “Partnering for Change, engaging the World”, under Singapore’ chairmanship ‘Resilience and Innovation”’ has been the focus.
Prior to the event on April 25-28 event the Joint Consultative Meeting of the ASEAN member states was held in Singapore on March 7-8 to review the agenda. Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Dung, head of the Vietnam ASEAN Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM), and a Vietnamese delegation attended the event. It was recommended that the leaders of the bloc shall review the construction of the ASEAN Community and devise supplementary measures for the process.
The construction of the ASEAN Community demands cooperation at the highest levels. This includes enhancing the capacity of the ASEAN Secretariat, boosting regional linkages and connectivity, besides effectively realising inter-sectoral and inter-pillar contents, and orientation to relations with external partner. From it side, Vietnam is committed to actively, proactively and responsibly join other member states in the bloc to the construction of the ASEAN Community. Vietnam is convinced that the bloc’s solidarity and consensus on regional and global issues can contribute to peace and stability, thereby reflecting its central role in the region. The stakeholders expected that the 32nd ASEAN Summit agree that the Code of Conduct in the East Sea as an open document based on the principles of international law, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and other related documents between ASEAN and China.
Vietnam’s role in the summit emerged outstanding. Led by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the high-ranking delegation actively participated in the discussions and gave opinions to the drafting of the documents. Regarding regional and international situation, Phuc and others welcomed the positive results of the inter-Korean Summit on April 27 and committed to continue to step up efforts to promote cooperation and dialogue, build trust on the basis of existing stances and principles on the East Sea, and work towards the formation of an effective and legally binding Code of Conduct, thus promoting peace, stability and cooperation in the East Sea.
An innovative idea floated by Singapore aims to connect cities within ASEAN, promote smart urbanisation through applying new technologies and improve the urban management skills to better the living conditions for regional people. Smart urban development will be done based on aspects of transport, water resources management, energy, health, education, public service, and information technology. Each city joining the network will build its action plans and promote feasible projects that are tailored to its own needs and interests, in a mutual support basis. Twenty three cities in ASEAN, including three cities of Vietnam – Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang – have registered to join the network. In short, Phuc’s visit to the 32nd ASEAN summit in Singapore was successful in various spheres.
Overall, the summit that concluded on April 28 was a success on various counts. The leaders adopted documents in line with priorities of ASEAN in 2018 towards enhancing the bloc’s resilience and innovation. At a press conference, Lee announced three documents: Vision for a Resilient and Innovative ASEAN, Statement on Cyber security Cooperation, and Smart Cities Network. Lee also announced the completion of the Model ASEAN Extradition Treaty, the renewed Singapore-ASEAN Youth Fund and the establishment of the ASEAN Law Academy, an annual training programme in Singapore. Other regional and external commitments of the bloc were also discussed.
Notwithstanding the success story, during the tenure of chairmanship, Singapore could find itself in a tricky situation and needs to navigate its stance carefully. China is Singapore’s largest trading partner and Singapore is China’s largest foreign investor.
Some influential persons in Singapore argue that Singapore could suffer negative consequences by publicly opposing China’s interests. Singapore Prime Minister Lee is not persuaded to buy such an argument. It is to be seen how Singapore crafts its policy to not only maintain ASEAN unity but also create the right environment by appropriate policy measures to make the organisation robust.