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Five priorities at the 32nd Asean summit - Kavi Chongkittavorn

When the Asean leaders converge on the Lion City later this month for their 32nd summit, a myriad of challenges awaits their deliberations formally and informally. Here are five key priorities that they are expected to tackle:


First, Asean centrality must be further strengthened. It has become the grouping's most important rallying point. Growing competitiveness and assertiveness among major powers have sent chills down spines in the region. The current chair, Singapore, knows full well, as a small state with nine other like-minded partners, that Asean could form a formidable bulwark against any intrusive great powers. Since its inception, Asean has been quite able to counter foreign threats. This time, Asean centrality encompasses more than just small-big state relations.

With the current chair, increased prior consultations through official and personal channels to reach consensus will be intensified. To face the unknown uncertainty brought about by the fast-changing international security landscape, Asean must be able to respond with one voice. All 10 members have to stick together and bridge gaps in all areas more than before. Obviously, it sounds daunting given growing confidence and widening national interests among members. But so far Asean has managed to move forward with common regional interests in mind.

The latest hype surrounding the Indo-Pacific helps explain why Asean has not yet reflected collectively on this new conceptual framework espoused by President Donald Trump last November. It will take time for Asean members to digest and come up with clear positions. In continental Southeast Asia, only Thailand and Vietnam welcomed the new geographic designation. As a maritime nation, Indonesia, has also taken the Indo-Pacific seriously after a lull when it was first present in 2013. All three are on the same page that the Indo-Pacific must be free, open, rules-based and inclusive, not aimed at a third party. Their common position and close consultations would pave the way for Asean to further strengthen its centrality in the next two years, when Thailand becomes Asean chair next year and Vietnam in 2020.

Asean centrality will be further tested by the dramatic changes on the Korean Peninsula with a series of summits between the leaders of North Korea, South Korea and the US. If the efforts of full denuclearisation become a reality in the coming months and years, Asean will be the first regional platform for Pyongyang to reach out to, building on its membership in the region-wide Asean Regional Forum (2000) and as a signatory of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (2008). As always, Asean is ready to play a constructive role in contributing to peace and stability on the peninsula.

Two more challenges include ongoing negotiations over a code of conduct in the South China Sea and the quagmire in Rakhine State, which would be up for scrutiny by the leaders. Greatly improved Asean-China ties have allowed the COC negotiations to proceed smoothly. Although there is no timeframe for its conclusion, if the current mood continues, the COC could be completed by next year. But the complex and sensitive crisis in Rakhine will require mutual understanding and a broad consensus, which might cause ruptures among Asean members, especially over the Rohingya plight. Myanmar has asked Asean to assist on issues related to public health care, community-based multifaceted projects and inter-faith dialogue. More Asean engagement in Rakhine State with Myanmar's acquiescence is to be expected.

Second, the need to promote Asean's Culture of Prevention. Last year after the adoption of the Asean Declaration on the Culture of Prevention (CoP) for a Peaceful, Inclusive, Resilient, Healthy and Harmonious Society, senior officials from Asean went to work on strategies to inculcate the prevention mindset among the 645 million people in their community. After all, the Asean social and cultural pillar is the most important driving force behind achieving a people-centered community. So far, Asean bureaucrats have paid more attention to the economic and security-political pillars.

CoP is a new endeavor within Asean cooperation. It would impact on the overall well-being of their citizens as nearly all action plans related to social and cultural sphere require cross-sector and cross-pillar coordination to enforce the CoP agenda. For instance, member countries must increase their political will to implement the remaining 45% of the social and cultural pillar under the current blueprint of 2025. No more lackadaisical attitudes. Some Asean members are still guarded when human rights issues crop up.

Third, sustaining Asean economic growth through international trade will continue to be the theme under the economic pillar as it is still the engine of growth and development in all member countries. Last year, the region's average growth of 5.2 percent was impressive and is expected to remain unchanged this year due to the global economic recovery and trade expansion. At the Singapore summit, Asean leaders will come on strong in support of multilateralism and ensuring that Asean remains connected with key regional partners, especially those who have concluded free trade agreements with Asean.

The ongoing negotiations under the framework of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership are reaching a critical threshold. The negotiators' true colours will be visible, especially China and India's. Bilateralism and regionalism will be tested among key negotiators for a favourable framework. Given the current anti-global trade sentiment, it is imperative that RCEP members expedite negotiations toward the finish line with a modern and comprehensive deal. More efforts are being made to push for greater facilitation of trade and investment to further promote regional value chains.

Fourth, Asean must promote and secure financial stability and resilience while fostering an inclusive and innovative Asean. This has been the chair's forte. Asean must further implement appropriate monetary, fiscal and supervisory policies to maintain macroeconomic and financial stability. In addition, given the Southeast Asian region's propensity for natural disasters, there is an urgent need to enhance the region's capacity to adopt and implement disaster risk management measures. At the Singapore summit, Asean leaders will increase their efforts to promote financial inclusion for all member countries as part of people-centred economic growth.

Fifth, Asean must fight against disruptive technology that fosters extremism and fake news. In particular, Indonesia and Malaysia are facing a proliferation of fake news as their domestic politics heat up. Malaysia has recently come up with an anti-fake news law. Other members are contemplating similar legislation. Asean's media needs to be more socially responsible. Although all Asean members have broad consensus that these new threats could undermine their home stability as well as regional peace and prosperity, they still have to display greater political will to boost common committees and up the ante against all these ill-intentioned forces.

It is incumbent on the current chair to see to it that Asean emerges stronger, more united, resilient and innovative.