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ASEAN: Shining oasis of regional cooperation

The grouping continues to provide a safe harbour for its member states and dialogue partners to weather the storm of anti-globalisation and isolationism.

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The 6th Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Ministerial Meeting in August 2018. The primary value of the RCEP pact lies in connecting trade partners that do not have free trade agreements among themselves.

SINGAPORE'S hosting of the 33rd ASEAN Summit and Related Summits this week takes place as multilateralism is on the retreat in large swathes around the world.

Among these ominous signs were the UK's withdrawal from the European Union (EU), the US' exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and the Paris Agreement on combatting climate change.

In contrast, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has bucked the trend and continues to provide a safe harbour for its member states and dialogue partners to weather the storm of anti-globalisation and isolationism.

The Singapore summit will see the 10 ASEAN leaders holding their annual consultation to discuss regional issues, in addition to reviewing and consolidating ASEAN community-building efforts.

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An enduring concept that helped to define ASEAN in its formative years, "resilience" has been revitalised and updated during Singapore's Chairmanship with new meanings such as "digital resilience", "disaster resilience", and "smart solutions" to urbanisation through the ASEAN Smart Cities Network.

This ASEAN Summit will welcome back into the fold Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has more than two decades of ASEAN experience at the highest level.

Known for his no-holds-barred approach and straight-talking, Dr Mahathir is expected to provide some notable talking points including the possible revival of his old idea of the East Asia Economic Caucus and the plight of the Rohingya people in Myanmar's Rakhine State.

The summit is followed by other high-level meetings where ASEAN Leaders will hold discussions with their dialogue partners' counterparts, including the "ASEAN +1" bilaterals, the "ASEAN +3" (with China, South Korea and Japan), and the 13th East Asia Summit (EAS).

The EAS this year will welcome the Russian President for the first time since the Eurasian giant joined the 18-member grouping back in 2011.

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Together with Vladimir Putin, US Vice-President Mike Pence and other EAS heads of government are expected to attend Asia's largest annual summit.

This high-level ensemble of leaders speaks volumes of the unique and indispensable role played by ASEAN in the regional architecture.

Its unparalleled convening power provides the common ground for regional leaders to exchange views, build trust, and expand confidence-building measures through functional areas of cooperation ranging from maritime security to counter-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and cyber security.

This aspect of ASEAN centrality is often (and unfairly) downplayed by sceptics as "all talk and no action". Such criticism however misses out the fundamental fact that ASEAN centrality works first and foremost for ASEAN Member States.

It helps to loosen the constraints of the great power politics straightjacket which can easily suffocate the policy options of ASEAN's small and medium-sized member states.

Instead of being the "price taker," ASEAN helps to level the playing field of power politics and provides an avenue for the South-east Asian states to chart their own future.

No less important is ASEAN's privileged position in setting the regional cooperation agenda, which serves to ensure that extra-regional initiatives are in sync with the group's common interests.

This prerogative in agenda setting however also presents ASEAN with the challenge to balance and reconcile between safeguarding its interests and sustaining the participation of its dialogue partners.

Notwithstanding these valid concerns, the fact that a growing number of external partners, notably the EU and Canada, are keen to join the EAS underlines the value and importance of the ASEAN-led regional architecture.

Indeed, as multilateral institutions and processes around the world reel from rising nationalist and protectionist sentiments, ASEAN remains one of the few bright spots where the belief in multilateral cooperation has not wavered.

Leading this contrarian charge, ASEAN has galvanised its six Dialogue Partners - Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand - to deepen regional integration through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

In his address to the 50th ASEAN Economic Ministers Meeting in August this year, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged the 16 negotiating parties to "take a long-term view, keep up the momentum, engage constructively and with maximum flexibility" to push the six-year negotiations past the finishing line.

RCEP is instructive on ASEAN's indispensable role as the bedrock of regional economic cooperation.

At first blush, RCEP streamlines ASEAN's "spaghetti bowl" of bilateral trade deals with its six dialogue partners, but the primary value of the pact which makes up nearly 40 per cent of the global GDP lies in connecting trade partners that do not have free trade agreements among themselves.

DEEPER TRADE LIBERALISATION

In addition, it also seeks to facilitate deeper trade liberalisation using a single platform.

Furthermore, the stakes for RCEP are high not only for the 16 participating countries, but also for the regional and global trade environment.

At the end of the 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting earlier this year, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan pointed out that RCEP is "something which we need to settle. And all the more so, given the state of the world and the anxiety over trade wars".

Therefore, apart from cost-benefit analysis in trade terms, it takes a strong political will and a long-term vision for mutually beneficial multilateral trade regimes to break the deadlock of the six-year negotiating process and bring RCEP towards "substantive conclusion", if not its full agreement.

From a wider strategic perspective, a significant amount of the diplomatic oxygen will be taken up by discussions on the Indo-Pacific concept.

It is an open secret that Indonesia has been working towards an "ASEAN version" of Indo-Pacific. Juxtaposed against this initiative is the designs by the US as well as some of its allies and partners to consolidate their presence in the region under the Indo-Pacific banner.

While not ideologically opposed to the concept, ASEAN has taken a cautious approach towards this new development as the parameters and strategic objectives of this concept remain hazy and underspecified.

The 33rd ASEAN Summit and Related Summits provide an emporium of ideas of regional cooperation and marks the crescendo of Singapore's ASEAN Chairmanship in 2018.

Throughout the year, ASEAN has added new dimensions to its repertoire of "regional resilience" to help the organisation and its member states cope with new uncertainties and rapid changes facing the region.

This enduring sense of cooperation personifies the spirit that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, a vital DNA that makes ASEAN an oasis of multilateral cooperation.

  • Tang Siew Mun and Hoang Thi Ha are, respectively, head and lead researcher II (political and security affairs) at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.