By Rajiv Bhatia*
The first week of November saw Bangkok turn into a summit venue, playing host to some important conferences: the most prominent of them was the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), besides others, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS). What were the outcomes of these summits and where does the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) stand today in relation to its key partners?
The chairman’s statement on the 35th ASEAN Summit, which was held on November 3, with a detailed report on the grouping’s activities and plans made clear that the ASEAN countries will continue to secure the region with “lasting peace, security and stability, sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and social progress”. For this ambitious goal to be achieved optimally, ASEAN’s community-building efforts will continue. In a changing geostrategic landscape, with the U.S., China and other powers pursuing their own (often conflicting) interests, the need to assert “ASEAN centrality” and “ASEAN’s role as the primary driving force in the regional architecture”, was emphasised.
In this context, ASEAN’s actions to strengthen its three pillars – political-security, economic and socio-cultural – become as important as its dialogue mechanisms with its external partners, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) and the EAS. Apart from its valuable diplomatic and political role in the region, ASEAN continues to be a significant economic player. As its economy grew at 5.2% in 2018, reaching a combined GDP of $3 trillion, it retained its position as the fifth largest economy in the world.
Against this backdrop, ASEAN’s three summits with China, U.S. and India – held in Bangkok on November 4 – deserve scrutiny. ASEAN’s extensive strategic partnership with China has been deepened through substantive initiatives taken in the past year, as pointed out in a statement by the ASEAN chairman. He made specific mention of China’s support for promoting “synergies” between the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China-ASEAN merchandise trade touched $479 billion in 2018, representing 17% of ASEAN’s total merchandise trade. As an external source of Foreign Direct Investment for ASEAN, China improved its position from fourth rank to third in 2018.
On the most complex issue facing the China-ASEAN relationship, namely the South China Sea, the two sides put on a positive spin, hailing together “the progress of the substantive negotiations” for the conclusion of the Code of Conduct (COC) within the agreed framework of three years. In a suitably diplomatic manner, ASEAN seems to have conveyed to China that it should not further complicate matters so that both sides continue to cooperate for peace and stability in the region.
The ASEAN summit with the U.S. lost much of its sheen as President Trump stayed away, sending instead the U.S. national security advisor as his special envoy. As a result, only three ASEAN heads of state/government (viz. Thailand, Vietnam and Laos) participated in the so-called summit. Nevertheless, ASEAN leaders “appreciated” Trump’s invitation to them to attend “a special summit” between the two sides in 2020. Trump’s disinterest in ASEAN was a big dampener, but it did not prevent the diplomats concerned to assert, through the chair’s statement, that the U.S. remained committed to strengthening ASEAN-U.S. strategic cooperation. Despite their brave efforts, fissures between the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) and the U.S. concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, appeared. The central divisive issue has been whether to adopt a cooperative or confrontational stance towards China.
The ASEAN-India summit ran along the expected lines, with the latest meeting showing nothing new in substantive terms. The two sides will continue working together for maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development, and economic cooperation. India’s offer of a line of credit of $1 billion for physical and digital connectivity, made over the past several years, did not find a place in the chair’s statement. It was, however, encouraging to note a modest growth in ASEAN-India trade – from $73.6 billion to $80.8 billion – in 2018. The ongoing and planned connectivity projects – the Trilateral Highway and its intended extension to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam – were mentioned, but there was no reference to the deadlines for their completion. The two sides expressed satisfaction over the implementation of the Plan for Action (2016-2020) to strengthen their partnership, and agreed on the need to craft a new plan for the next five-year period.
Two regional summits
The 14th East Asia Summit (EAS), attended by ASEAN and its eight partner nations, was a fairly routine conference. This summit is usually projected as “a premier Leaders-led forum” to secure cooperation on broad strategic, political, security and economic issues of common interest. As the chair’s statement indicated, participants covered a wide-ranging agenda, comprising cooperation in environment and energy, education and health, connectivity and trade, among other issues. On the South China Sea question, the formulation was more explicit, referring to i) a few nations’ insistence that the Code of Conduct under negotiation must be consistent with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and ii) the agreement among all participants about the need for “non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities of claimants and all other states”. These were construed as clear, but feeble, attempts by the EAS to constrain China, whose premier was a participant in the discussion.
Finally, the RCEP summit which received the lion’s share of media attention, ended with 15 nations agreeing on the text of the agreement; and the 16th, India, having ‘significant outstanding issues’. The summit statement that all RCEP participants would “work together to resolve these outstanding issues in a satisfactory way” was overtaken by PM Narendra Modi’s announcement of India’s firm decision to stay out of the RCEP.
The Indian political leadership, the only stakeholder equipped to take the decision, concluded that the RCEP package on offer was neither fair nor balanced. The decision causes a temporary setback to the Act East Policy, but it can recover this lost ground if New Delhi is creative and proactive – which it is likely to be.
*About the author: Rajiv Bhatia, a former ambassador, is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House. He comments regularly on developments in the Indo-Pacific region.
Source: This article was written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
 Chairman of ASEAN (2019), “Statement of the 35th Asean Summit Bangkok/Nonthaburi, 3 November 2019 Advancing Partnership For Sustainability”, ASEAN, 3 November 2019, https://www.asean2019.go.th/en/news/chairmans-statement-of-the-35th-asean-summit-bangkok-nonthaburi-3-november-2019-advancing-partnership-for-sustainability/
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 ASEAN, “Chairman’s Statement of The 14th East Asia Summit”, ASEAN, 5 November 2019, https://asean.org/chairmans-statement-14th-east-asia-summit/
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