ASEAN Chair Laos faces a serious test in Diplomacy

July 20, 2016

ASEAN Chair Laos faces a serious test in Diplomacy

by Caitlin McCaffrie


At a time when the region faces a multitude of challenges, some are questioning whether the chair is up to the job.

2016 is a big year for ASEAN. It began with the quiet launch of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which was followed by the Sunnylands Summit; the first time all ASEAN leaders met a US President on US soil. Now the region is facing intense scrutiny over its approach to the South China Sea dispute, as well as severe droughts threatening the Mekong region.

However, there are many who doubt whether this year’s chair of ASEAN is up to the job. The role of ASEAN chair rotates annually, and this year it has fallen to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic: a one-party, authoritarian state with no political opposition, dismal media freedom and rampant corruption.

ASEAN is a quiet organisation that takes pride in not making too many waves. It makes decisions by consensus, and all members have the equal capacity to block a policy proposal, with the chair mainly serving as a coordinator and host-nation for summits. For a long time, the identity of the chair was never cause for much international interest. That changed in 2012, when Cambodia took its turn.

2012 has gone down in ASEAN history as its least functional. It was the first time that the group failed to agree on language to include in their final joint statement concerning the South China Sea, a fact which has been widely attributed to Chinese pressure on Cambodia to stymie such language. At the time China was one of Cambodia’s biggest aid donors.

After Cambodia’s disastrous chairmanship, Brunei, Myanmar then Malaysia have taken the reins, without major incident. However, the South China Sea issue has been dominating regional debates this year, and the issue is currently before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague.

Laos takes over as ASEAN Chair from Malaysia

A ruling on the Philippines’ argument disputing the validity of China’s nine dash line claims is expected by June 2016, but China has refused to participate in proceedings and has made it clear it will not recognise any ruling made by the court.

In February ASEAN announced the group was “seriously concerned” over China’s actions in the South China Sea, however the real test will come after the ruling is issued. Should the PCA find in favour of the Philippines’ claim, as many are predicting it will, the question will be whether ASEAN will support the Philippines in any attempt to enforce the ruling against China.

Laos’ significant economic reliance on China will likely put it in the same position as Cambodia was four years ago. With Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines each claiming part of the sea, if Laos does bow to Chinese pressure on the nine dash line, ASEAN will face potentially destructive internal division.

Another issue that ASEAN would do well to tackle this year is the severe drought that has hit the Mekong region, where temperatures are soaring and the monsoon season has been delayed. On this issue, Laos may have to tread carefully, as their Don Sahong and Xayaburi dams are two of the most controversial of the 70 new dams expected to be operational along the Mekong by 2030.

Experts have suggested that the dams could jeopardise the livelihoods of the estimated 60 million people. Laos’ vested interest in hydropower brings its ability to deal with the drought impartially into question.

2016 is also a critical year for ASEAN as it has launched the AEC, a community 10 years in the making, whose future currently rests on Laos’ shoulders. The AEC is very ambitious for ASEAN, usually a cautious institution. However, the announcement of the launch of the AEC was only a first step, and it is still very much a work in progress.

Questions have been raised over whether Laos is equipped to deal with the range of issues it faces as chair this year. Already international media groups are asking whether they will be given sufficient access to cover the many ASEAN meetings which will be held in Vientiane. Laos is known for being a harsh climate in which to be a foreign journalist, announcing in January 2016 that the Foreign Ministry has to vet all articles produced by foreign media and journalists need to apply for visas 15 days in advance (when non-journalists can get a visa on arrival).

The Laos government denied it restricts foreign media, offering the illuminating statement: “We don’t have restrictions but procedures,” clarifying that the above rules only apply to film-makers, but that journalists covering the summits would need to be escorted by officers and have their questions and subjects vetted by the Foreign Ministry.

Some have labelled 2016 as Laos’ “coming of age”, and others have warned of the threat the country’s chairmanship poses to the region as a whole. Either way, it is certain that a great many challenges face Laos as it chairs ASEAN this year. There is certainly no guarantee that it is in a position to effectively manage the competing priorities of 10 member states.

Caitlin McCaffrie lives and works in Phnom Penh and has a major interest in Southeast Asian politics.


12 thoughts on “ASEAN Chair Laos faces a serious test in Diplomacy

  1. The South China Sea issue has come to a head in ASEAN. It will be a test for member states to attempt to reach a consensus. My own view is that the non-claimant states should not be drawn into the fray and forced to make a stand which conflicts with their national interests. At best, ASEAN should urge the claimant states, China and the United States to resolve the matter peacefully. –Din Merican

  2. US is not a party to South China Sea dispute, so get out!

    US is a trouble maker in the world. Look at trouble in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, North African and Middle East countries, refugees…..
    If the war broke out, there will be inflow of refugees from Philippines, Vietnam to Malaysia and Indonesia….

    Malaysia and China must stop USA and Japan of creating troubles among Asean.

    Dao inhabits people’s hearts: Tribunal’s dangerous precedent in international law !

    Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting July 23~26, last chance for peace in South China Sea?

  3. The US a “claimant state” in the South China Sea, Dato Din Merican?
    NO, but the US thinks like a hegemon and can be anything it wants to be. It owns the Philippines.–Din Merican

  4. “Political manipulation violates combined concept of fairness, justice, rule, trend and direction.” wrongways

    Asinine moron, who uses this space as apologetics for his Masters of the Universe. Please lah, i’m presently more than 8 k km from the tepid waters of the peninsula of my birth, and i find it revolting to have to chance on such mindless drivel.

    My opinions of this Monumental Loss of Face by PRC middle kingdomers are well known. ASEAN can never be a panacea and the only language Xi Tweedledum understands is a nuke down his ass. In one explosion, the real Taikor can wipe off most of her external debt and cause unforetold economic meltdown eh? Waste of time commenting on the obvious solution.

  5. I have a more simple view about the whole South China Sea issue. Forget about who is right and who is wrong. In international relations, it is national interest and the facts on the ground that are important, not the rights or wrongs. Is it right or wrong that the British came, created “Malaya”, and helped create “Malaysia”? Is it right or wrong that communism lost in Malaya/Malaysia, but won in Indochina? What happened has happened, and it is the facts that matter.

    Whatever the merits of the PCA ruling, the fact is that China controls several islands/reefs in the South China Sea, is actively militarising the area, and no one is willing and able to push China out (not even the US). The facts of Chinese power trump any appeals to law or ethics. There is an apt Roman phrase: “Inter arma enim silent leges” – laws are silent among arms.

    The question is not the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” claim. That claim and Chinese behaviour, I think, clearly point to its goal of hegemony in the region. That goal is understandable from a historical perspective, and normal for a great power. Again, this is not a judgment about whether it is right or wrong. The key question is whether the other countries are ready to accept Chinese hegemony. If yes, then its all rather straightforward, and there won’t be tension or armed conflict. But if not, what are they going to do about it? In essence, we all can see what China wants, so do you give it what it wants?

    In the South China Sea, I can only be certain that Vietnam would resist Chinese hegemony. Not sure about the others. But even then, the Vietnamese are not a sea or air power. There are other disputes far to the north, with Japan and Korea, but those have very different dynamics.

  6. For a long time in history China had been more concern over its land boarders. Now she is taking a good look at the sea. All nations have their legitimate concerns and interest. It is up to our diplomats who created the UN Law of the Sea find a solution to those legitimate concerns and interest. The Arachepalago Concept at interpreted by the Law of the Sea is in itself a controversial agreement. ASEAN’s more demanding tasks are at the home front. We must allocate our resources carefully and not get into conflicts that can be avoided. It might be even a better strategy to strengthen ASEAN in the fields of politics, the economy and social affairs while working on the territorial issues affecting some of its members.

  7. Key to survival in the coming decades living in between two hegemons are those small nations who could learn how to earn the hearts and minds, not to mention the respect of the hegemon’s citizen.

    For the few that I know, many Chinese in Mainland and Americans would not agree to the current hegemon administrations. Billion of Chinese learnt about Mozi’s writings. Yet, none get to experience nor taste what it meant. Mozi’s universal peace and love wasn’t created in the time of peace, but during a tumultuous times, i.e. the warring period of the day.

    Average Chinese citizens love Mozi ( and WangYangMing’s school of mind (

    For the US, most educated Malaysians are already familiar with their favorite ideology.

    Hang-in there, fellow Malaysians.

  8. Something that is of interest for WangYangMing is that he has a successful military career, and the Samurai ethic that we know today has its’ origin from WangYangMing.

    Mozi is claimed to have designed many art to defend a city of its’ time.

    It is most applicable when negotiating and quoting those two sources when dealing with XiDada’s modern day mandarin.

  9. Sending a link of a translated writings of Wang Yang Ming done, and published.

    Of interest, is reading of the introduction, and of his inquiry on the “Great Learning”.
    #1) he calls for universal love. Transforming the universal piety to beyond one’s parents, but everyone’s parents.

    > Pg 272: The great man regards Heaven, Earth, and
    the myriad things as one body. He regards the world as one family
    and the country as one person.

    #2) he calls highest good as loving people.
    The highest good is the ultimate principle of manifesting character and loving people.

    #3) he calls acting on the good itself is good. Mere knowledge of good alone is not good.
    Pg 275
    Question: “Only after knowing what to abide in can one be calm.
    Only after having been calm can one be tranquil. Only after having
    achieved tranquillity can one have peaceful repose. Only after having
    peaceful repose can one begin to deliberate. Only after deliberation
    can the end be attained.”14 How do you explain this ?
    Answer: People fail to realize that the highest good is in their
    minds and seek it outside. As they believe that everything or every
    event has its own definite principle, they search for the highest good
    in individual things. Consequently, the mind becomes fragmentary,
    isolated, broken into pieces ; mixed and confused, it has no definite
    direction. Once it is realized that the highest good is in the mind and
    does not depend on any search outside, then the mind will have
    definite direction and there will be no danger of its becoming
    fragmentary, isolated, broken into pieces, mixed, or confused.

    # My personal Question to rightways:
    If you were to extend your border of ‘Chinese’ to include beyond existing definition of 9 dash line, as per Wang YangMing’s understanding of Confucianism, would you think the right course of actions should be done differently by existing XiDada Administration, who praises highly of the ideal of Confucianism? What is the principle of Nature in this matter?

  10. Forgot to include the link to the pdf mentioned in above comment.

    Dato.Din, I think you might be interested in compare and contrast Wang Yang Ming’s inquiry, together with Machiavellian also. Both include a lot of writings on pragmatic thoughts on governing and strategies.

    Both are people of the same period.
    Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (3 May 1469 – 21 June 1527)
    Wang Yangming (31 October 1472 – 9 January 1529),

  11. The claim by China for all the sea within the many dashed line area of the South China Sea is totally outrageous, but hey, that will not stop them from succeeding.
    ASEAN has proven to be totally absent on this issue to date. But I do support Dato’s recommendation “that the non-claimant states should not be drawn into the fray and forced to make a stand which conflicts with their national interests.” That may at least allow the claimants to form a small sub group. But I don’t think it will make one iota of difference to China, who will walk all over them anyway.
    We are currently in a major global power transition period.
    The Middle Kingdom has awoken and wants to claim its place and chunk of the world. Including as much of Africa and the Pacific resources it can buy or trade.
    Putin has Russia ready to take on all comers and refuses to be pushed around. (Who was it the George W. claimed as a new friend??) Now a major player in keeping the middle east destabilized; and poking the EU and NATO in the eye by offering cheap loans and military equipment to Greece.
    The EU is struggling with their economies, migrant influx, not to mention BREXIT. What about NATO? Hello, anyone home? The Brits have agreed the Tridents; but when Scotland leave, where will they park them?
    Enter the USA election. Donald says he will reduced support to NATO and Pacific allies, and has absolutely zero credible foreign policy, (or any policy for that matter). Clinton has foreign policy baggage and will probably struggle to get any proposals through the chambers of the house.

    So where does that leave Malaysia, and the other claimants? In a deep, deep wet and sticky hole! Who can they turn to for support?; only each other, and to date that has produced nil results.

    I used to be an optimist; but it is very hard to keep smiling these days.

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