Asean leaders to push economic-community plans at summit

By Lydia Lim | Source: ANN
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Asean counterparts will meet in Brunei today and tomorrow for the regional grouping’s 22nd summit.

They will seek to put behind them last year’s disunity over the South China Sea issue, and push ahead with plans for an economic community by 2015.

This year, the chairmanship of the 10-member grouping has passed from Cambodia to Brunei, which has streamlined the summit process and cut back on the number of meetings.

It has also put the focus on implementation of plans already agreed to, such as the single market by the deadline of 2015.

There are hopes for a good summit this week because Brunei understands that the role of the Asean chair is to seek compromise, not set an ultimatum, said Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap of the Asean Studies Centre. He added that “Brunei certainly has the experience” to do so.

The South China Sea issue, which concerns overlapping territorial claims between China and the four Asean member states of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, drove a wedge between members last year.

It resulted in the foreign ministers not issuing a joint communique for the first time in 45 years.

Asean has drafted what it hopes will be a legally binding Code of Conduct focused on issues like preventing incidents at sea, crisis management and confidence-building measures.

It hopes China will agree to start formal talks on it soon.

Last month, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament that Asean needs to regain its unity and credibility after its solidarity was tested last year by disagreements over competing claims in the South China Sea.

At the same time, Singapore has stressed that the South China Sea issue should not define the relationship between Asean and China. At last year’s summit in Cambodia, PM Lee called on all parties to focus on the positive aspects of their ties, especially growing economic linkages.

As for economic integration within Asean, there has been progress. The 10 capitals are now connected by air and more people and goods move between members states than before, said Lee Yoong Yoong of the Institute of Policy Studies.

What remains to be done in the three years leading to the 2015 deadline for the economic community is the “operationalisation of the various economic agreements signed by the leaders and the Asean economic ministers in the past few years, and in the process of doing so, to straighten some of the minor operating details and hiccups”, he said.

Negotiations are also due to start next month on a 16-nation free trade area, and this week, the leaders are expected to give their backing to this new project.

Called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, it aims to bring Asean’s existing free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, India and South Korea, into a single agreement. It has the potential to be one of the world’s largest FTAs, covering a region of three billion people and who account for a third of global GDP or output.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the Asean leaders will discuss at this week’s summit the progress in efforts to establish an Asean Community by 2015, and take stock of the implementation of the Asean Charter. They will also discuss Asean’s role in the regional architecture.

Shanmugam and senior officials will accompany Lee.

One leader who will miss this summit is Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is in the midst of an election campaign leading up to the polls on May 5.