Published daily by the Lowy Institute

ASEAN summit should focus on the possible

Too much time on problems without solutions will doom ASEAN to paltry progress.

Security forces for the ASEAN Summit, November 2017 (Photo: Gregorio Dantes/Getty Images)
Security forces for the ASEAN Summit, November 2017 (Photo: Gregorio Dantes/Getty Images)

Close observers of ASEAN's peak summitry often note the blandness of the final communiqués. The forum remains crippled by the consensus-based nature of decision-making and a policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states. So while some may talk up big statements on headline issues, such as the Rohingya crisis or the South China Sea, expect little. But that doesn't mean the gathering can't achieve on other top order issues in the region.  

Leaders from 21 nations will attend various meetings in Manila over the coming week, including the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Plus meetings. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a keen showman, will be in his element on the big stage. Despite being late to dispatch his RSVP, US President Donald Trump will be in attendance. His foot-dragging hasn't been overlooked, where perceptions of US withdrawal from Asia are rife. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin aren't expected to be among those in Manila, attending just the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Vietnam.  

At the April summit, Duterte (this year's ASEAN Chair) called for calm on the Korean Peninsula and spoke about the threats of rising extremism, illegal drugs and piracy. Notably, he also reiterated the importance of non-interference in domestic affairs. A similar roll call of issues is likely this month.

As well as these issues, further negotiations on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea are expected to take place among ASEAN leaders (read here on why it probably matters less than it should). Beijing has told the US not to get involved. At the ASEAN summit in April, no joint statement was immediately issued amid tense debate over Chinese island-building and militarisation of the South China Sea. Reuters reported that Chinese officials had made attempts to influence the communiqué's content. That 'influence', whether applied or perceived, is very real and will continue to affect member states this week.

What won't be on the agenda

The Rohingya crisis won't get the attention that it deserves. Indonesia and Malaysia will push for discussions on the subject – they may even recruit Thailand to their cause.

But while some will highlight the humanitarian motivations of these countries pressing the issue, a key (if not the core) concern will be irregular migrant flows. The 'death camps' in Thailand that grabbed headlines and public outrage in 2015 will be the impetus in wanting a resolution to the crisis.

But despite the need for action, diplomatic pressure will likely fail within ASEAN now, as it did in 2015. At that time, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments pushed back thousands of Rohingya and Bangladeshis stuck in rickety boats attempting to reach their shores. Malaysia's Deputy Home Minister put it bluntly at the time, saying 'we don't want them to come here'.

The political climate in the two countries has since changed. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has needed to court an increasingly vocal Islamist movement. Malaysia distanced itself from the ASEAN Chairman's statement earlier this year, which toed a Myanmar government line by failing to mention the Rohingya by name. Indonesia's similar courtship of extremism has been clear too, most remarkably when Jakarta's Christian Chinese Governor Ahok was found guilty of blasphemy in May.

As a result, the buck for serious diplomatic pressure will be passed outside the bloc of ten. The Rohingya crisis is unlikely to be high on Trump's list – even if it was placed there by advisers, it would hold little water in the context of his cold pragmatism. Meanwhile Beijing and Delhi have already indicated their support the Tatmadaw's 'stabilisation' of Rakhine state. The protests of other actors will largely be lost in the wind.  

What should be on the agenda

Earlier this year ASEAN published Global Megatrends: Implications for the ASEAN Economic Community. There are many lessons in the report that suggest ASEAN should collectively prepare to reduce risks to its $2.5 trillion economy. However, the wave of populist and authoritarian politics that has swept the region will likely push more hysterical and less sensible agenda topics.

The prospect of 'super malaria' is just one of many health concerns that too often falls off the agenda. Antimicrobial resistance is a huge issue across the Indo-Pacific, and is getting worse. An outbreak of infectious disease, particularly of the increasingly prevalent drug-resistant variety, could severely damage the region's economy and create deep mistrust between state and sub-state actors if not properly addressed. Improvements to health systems across the region are needed (one example here) and would have broad positive effects on economic development.

Similarly, although it gets marginally more column inches, threats in the cyber realm are of first order priority. Not least is the impact of Facebook as a vehicle for hatred, division, and unrest, such as has been seen in Myanmar.

In times of great dispute, elevating these to top order issues for joint action would be broadly welcomed. At the margins, important and less embittered diplomacy could occur.

But that is unlikely and big ticket issues will more likely prevail. North Korea, the problem with no solution, is expected to take up significant time, as is counter terrorism. The lengthy fight for Marawi exposed how far the region needs to come in intelligence-sharing on counter-terrorism. Some 60,000 security personnel are set to be deployed for the Summit – the display of force on the streets of Manila will serve as a reminder of the threats still posed. Attacks in the city or elsewhere by escaped, battle-hardened fighters from Marawi are a possibility. But while counter-terrorism is highly relevant, particularly for the Philippines, governments across the region have demonstrated that they don't want to tackle the core drivers of these issues (see here and in, the case of Thailand, this Crisis Group report here).

If the ASEAN Summit is to break the trend and achieve real policy progress, it should stick to the possible. Until it changes its restrictive consensus voting system, expressing pre-written statements on difficult issues is little more than timewasting during an otherwise crucial forum for regional dialogue and development. A leader's dialogue, as proposed by Tan Sri Rastam Mohd Isa here, that can nut out and nudge policy positions on a one-on-one level would be more effective in tackling thorny issues.

Regardless of what makes the cut for discussion this week, only that which operates in the realm of the possible will be successful. Until the ASEAN Summit recognises this reality, it is doomed to bland and stagnant communiqués reflecting paltry progress and that serve no one who hopes to see the ASEAN community flourish.

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