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(November 6, 2018) Asean must maximise East Asia meet - Kavi Chongkittavorn

 www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/1570690/asean-must-maximise-east-asia-meet

When the world's most powerful leaders converge in Singapore next week for the 13th East Asia Summit (EAS), they will know the region's overall security situation and economic cooperative atmosphere has improved greatly in the past six months. Given this favourable atmosphere, Asean leaders have to seize the opportunity and take the lead in engaging EAS leaders in ways to lock in a more predictable and stable future.

Today, the tension on the Korean Peninsula has eased considerably to a more manageable level, especially intra-Korean ties, thanks to South Korean President Moon Jae-in's determination to overcome conventional wisdom in building up personal trust with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-un. Their three summits yielded exceptional outcomes. Mr Kim's returning visit to Seoul in the weeks ahead will further strengthen mutual confidence. Tangible progress has already been translated into new pledges and cross-border exchanges, including restoring the maritime hotline on Nov 1, sharing information on illegal fishing near their territorial waters and joint bidding for the 2032 Olympic Games. For the first time since 1953, a real peace without nuclear threats is possible on the peninsula.

Now, Seoul wants to see some relaxation of multiple sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council to reward North Korea's cooperation to de-nuke itself. It remains to be seen how this will play out, as Beijing currently is on the same page as Seoul in relaxing sanctions.

At the recent summit in Pyongyang, Mr Kim pledged to Mr Moon that he will allow international observers to verify its claims at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. If this plan proceeds, it would generate a conducive atmosphere for another Trump-Kim summit in the first part of next year. Washington has been unwavering saying that any lifting of sanctions would depend on the verification process. The scheduled Trump meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires at the G20 summit at the end of this month would also give new impetus to Pyongyang to fulfil its commitment.

In China's view, Mr Trump's trade actions deliberately aim at pressuring China to do more on North Korea. In a similar vein, the recent US withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Force Treaty was also aimed at China and North Korea, as Washington has more flexibility in missiles, with ranges from 500-5,500 kilometres.

Another positive development is China's improved ties with Japan and India. Shuttle diplomacy between these three Asian economic powerhouses has been remarkable given their longstanding enmity. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's highly successful visit to Beijing last month has dramatically raised hopes of more cooperation to come. The two countries, as the region's biggest aid donors, have pledged to jointly map out and fund development projects in third countries. Of late, Japan has also softened its attitude toward the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, raising expectations that Tokyo would soon join the two stellar Chinese initiatives. Several Japanese companies have already taken advantage of the BRI projects.

In turn, China is monitoring closely the progress of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which will take effect at the end of this year. Beijing's renewed interest in this mega-trade bloc has increased since the US pullout. Japan and the signatories of the Trans-Pacific Partnership decided to draft and conclude the CPTPP with a trimmed-down framework. Mr Abe told Mr Xi last month in Beijing that the CPTPP welcomes China's membership. It could happen if geo-political and geo-economic factors permit. Beijing could make the move, preempting Washington's return, or vice versa. To avoid this schism, the two great powers must adopt constructive zero-sum games.

After years of living dangerously, the region's two most populous countries --China and India -- have realised that living in a more secure and prosperous environment is preferable. In July, China proposed four initiatives to improve ties and reduce tension along their troublesome border, plans to synchronise the BRI with India's Act East Policy, and started to discuss a free trade agreement. Lastly, Beijing has invited New Delhi to sign the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation. This time, India is taking China's overtures seriously given the dynamic of East Asia economic progress. As the world's largest democracy, India is also making full use of its credibility with Japan and the West.

Within the region, China, Japan and India are game changers in the nearly completed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Their growing affinity would have a positive impact on their trade cooperation. Asean is hoping there will be a breakthrough by the year's end, as India has displayed a new attitude toward the service sector. To send a strong signal that the region strongly supports free trade and multilateralism, RCEP's conclusion is urgent and indispensable.

Of late, the South China Sea dispute has been quiet, as China and Asean negotiate a single text of draft guidelines for a code of conduct. Beijing has set 2020 as the deadline for its completion. It could be finished sooner if conflicting Asean members can work out their differences. However, the recent US-led freedom of navigation exercise with selected allied naval forces has rattled China, which views its massive scale as a possible threat. However, China also recently held a joint maritime exercise with Asean naval forces, the first of its kind, indicating China's greater maritime cooperation with the region coupled with Asean's desire to maintain its balanced approach to the two great powers.

Despite the positive outcome of a 55-minute telephone call between Mr Trump and Mr Xi last Thursday, there is still a high level of suspicion between the two countries. Indeed, their trade war has now spread to other sensitive areas, such as the Taiwan Straits and allegations of Beijing's interference in the US midterm elections.

Under these circumstances, Asean has to become more assertive in using all the grouping's resources to sustain its centrality. For instance, Asean has taken up the Indo-Pacific concept after nearly a year of ambivalence. The grouping wants to make the framework more inclusive and holistic, covering all the Indian and Pacific oceans, both mainland and maritime zones.

In the past, Asean was always passive in responding to the great powers' competition in the region, trying to avoid possible collateral damage. Given the growing connectivity within the region's economic and security areas, Asean can no longer afford to be idle. Through balanced dynamic engagement with EAS, Asean is hopeful that it will be able to shape the discourse and substance of new strategic issues raised by any EAS member.


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