Can ASEAN Remain Relevant?

Singapore began its ASEAN chairmanship by emphasizing on the themes of “resilience” and “innovation” to deal with problems and grow the region’s potentials. Slogans are mere window-dressing, however.

The Rohingya conflict is nowhere near a definitive humane resolution, regional cybersecurity remain the weakest in the world, there is no united policy to face China’s schemes as a group, and so on. It is fair to say ASEAN has indeed brought the member states together to address regional issues, but it is also healthy criticism to point out that the same states have conflicting interests, an unfortunate element that could never bring the organisation above its “talk shop” label. The hosting of a meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in the city-state may have cast positive light at the region, but also brought in more scrutinising observers.

Still, ASEAN has made significant milestones since its inception, but changing times call for flexible plans of actions. Stakeholder interests and external actors are dynamic, but tenets are not. With Singapore as the chair of ASEAN this year, how will it push ASEAN to secure and assert its continued relevance?

Since Trump took office as US president, ASEAN needed to expedite its free trade agreements (FTA) with other countries since the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was dropped. One especially important FTA is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that involves the surrounding countries around ASEAN. At the same time, the US-China trade war hurts ASEAN in varying ways, including Singapore which supplies intermediary goods and services for Chinese exports to the US.

Singapore has good reasons to pursue RCEP to reduce volatility – at worst it’s a way to manage losses in the short-term, and at best it encourages local businesses by reducing transaction costs. So far, negotiations appear to have been making progress, with particular attention on concluding them within this year. Meanwhile, Singapore ratified the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – a similar FTA to TPP but without the US – as if to signal to others its eagerness to move against the headwinds of anti-globalisation sentiments and trade tensions despite little or no additional tangible benefits from the signatories.

ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat at Singapore (6/2). (Photos by Kemlu Ri)

Singapore is also pretty eager to expand its “Smart City” idea to its neighbours. In May, Singapore’s Centre for Liveable Cities and Ministry of Foreign Affairs co-organised the ASEAN Smart Cities Governance Workshop. The goal was to develop plans for various cities for smart city development within the ASEAN Smart Cities Framework, with discussions between public and private sectors exploring “potential collaboration on commercially viable projects”.

However, news of a suspected Chinese cyberattack on SingHealth soon hit, bringing the project to question. Even so, Singapore anticipated the sceptics by accenting cybersecurity cooperation during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat, which is greatly needed when cybersecurity of the region is not just the weakest, but also at different levels between countries. Singapore can also lead this matter by leveraging on its close proximity with security experts from the INTERPOL Global Complex for Innovation to develop cybersecurity measures symmetrically.

But that’s where the headline feel good stories pretty much ends. ASEAN members can cooperate on immediate threats and benefits to the collective, but spillover effects and territorial disputes can jeopardise the organisation’s integrity. ASEAN cannot do anything but encourage Myanmar to “promote harmony and reconciliation” in the Rakhine State due to the non-interference clause, nor objectively deal with China’s claim over the South China Sea (SCS) as a unified body at a short notice due to opposing interests. Right now, more focus has shifted onto the Code of Conduct (CoC) in the SCS as Chinese activities, both economic and military, create rippling effects in the region.

No one expects the CoC to be drafted and adopted overnight, but ASEAN needs to unify their position – a consensus – before facing the external claimant to the territories. This is not just an internal dispute that can be discussed within the organisation, but involving an imposing third party like China that has significant leverage over the region. As if to buy time before settling the claims, the CoC – if legally binding – can restrict naval movements and reduce the risk of clashes while the foreign ministries have direct lines of communications to abate any possible impasse in the waters, thus making sovereign action in the area much more predictable.

Curiously, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan made emphasis on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) early in his statement after the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat, which could hint at the CoC as an extension of customary international law, or just a warning to the belligerent(s) who are parties to the UNCLOS (which China and most ASEAN members are) but antagonise themselves in defiance of the Convention in the eyes of others.

So claims in the SCS will not be resolved with the CoC alone, and the resolution process might very well be delayed because of the focus on CoC first. But optimistically, at least the CoC would thin out the hostilities and restrain the navies and trawlers from jousting one another. As Dr Cassey Lee from ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute noted, “The emphasis is on a gradual process that is aimed at maintaining ASEAN centrality and neutrality.” There will be expectations that Singapore, having favourable ties with both China and US and a moderate image of neutrality, could mediate the process in the foreseeable future – for the benefit of ASEAN without least upsetting China.

Although ASEAN is unlike the European Union, its success still heavily relies upon the solidarity of the Association. Just as Aristotle figured how factional conflicts arise “not over small things but from small things”, Singapore as this year’s chair must remain attentive to the constant changes of the world while being proactive in the scene as well.

In his book Does ASEAN Matter: A View from Within, former Foreign Minister of Indonesia Dr. Marty Natalegawa observed that “risks would abound if ASEAN were to adopt a static ‘wait and see’ outlook.” While the world functions as a living organism, statutes and doctrines are lifeless. ASEAN has to remain relevant, or the world will move on without it and its constituents could suffer. Singapore is doing what it can for ASEAN, but its fellow member states are equally responsible for the outcomes of the organisation.

Chan Yao Hua is a staff writer and a second-year student at SIM-UOL majoring in International Relations.

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About the author

A.K.A William, he is a staff writer and a second-year student at SIM-UOL majoring in International Relations. He has his mind in politics that has immediate effects on everyday life, but his heart sometimes wanders to aviation.

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