Harapan entering a grey area, a year before 2020


December 26, 2018

Harapan entering a grey area, a year before 2020

 

 

Opinion  |  by Phar Kim Beng

COMMENT | As I write this, Malaysia, as governed by Pakatan Harapan, is entering both a festive occasion – marked by Christmas and the New Year – and a festering one too. There are five telltale signs of the latter:

  • The tragic death of firefighter Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim in the Seafield temple riots.
  • The 55,000 who gathered in Kuala Lumpur for the rally against the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd).
  • Authorities seemingly forgetting about M Indira Gandhi’s missing daughter, and about Teoh Beng Hock’s death nearly ten years ago.
  • Close to 15 percent of Malaysia’ population will be above 60 years of age by 2023.
  • About 38,000 Felda settlers getting cost of living aid  and deposits for replanting.

In any one of the above, Harapan has at best either been silent, or belatedly proactive. Meanwhile, the world continues to change in five ways:

  • US President Donald Trump deciding on two simultaneous withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan, signalling the end of American presence in two of the most conflict-prone regions in the world.
  • Russia staying quiet on the pullout of American troops, although this strategic withdrawal is akin to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
  • Islamic State and the Taliban also staying quiet, suggesting a deeper motivation to push deeper into the Western world, or perhaps Asia, to wreak more havoc;
  • China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, which appeared to be all but irreversible, has been challenged by the Quad (United States, Japan, Australia and India).
  • Japan, one of the key powers in the Indo-Pacific region, continuing to shrink in terms of population, thus further heightening its insecurity.

These are dangerous times. There are some quaint parallels: the elan of the Vietnam War, when Communist forces pushed forward from the north to south in 1975; the fall of Kabul in 1989; the Russian incursion in Georgia in 2008; and the slow but organic militarisation of South China Sea from 2011 onwards when China, for the first time, referred to the area as its “core interest,” a term previously only reserved for Taiwan and Tibet.

But there is no telling if Harapan is aware of the whiplash effects of these world events. Political scientist Arthur Stein once warned of the importance of “relative gains” in international relations, wherein all great powers see gains and losses in zero-sum terms.

Granted, Malaysia has a foreign and defence policy that seems to be geared towards the centrality of ASEAN. But there is no telling if it wants to adjust to a post-US-Japanese world and the emerging Sino-Russian world order.

East Asia is entering this post-US-Japanese world. The US had always made it a point to keep Tokyo informed of any dramatic moves.

But now, at the speed of a tweet, Trump proceeded to announce the withdrawal of the US from the theater of the Middle East and South Asia, without notifying its staunchest East Asian allies Japan and South Korea.

Japan got its first taste of the ‘Nixon shock’ when the then-US president announced his plan to visit China in 1971, before Nixon announced his New Economic Programme, which included abandoning the gold standard.

The country would be shocked again when it received no thanks from Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah of Kuwait for its financial contribution to Operation Desert Storm led by then-president George Bush.

What Trump did in recent weeks must constitute a third shock for Japan – a major ally pulling out of two regions at the same time, even with the opposition of outgoing Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

By pulling out of Syria and Afghanistan, Japan must be reeling from the fear that its security relationship with Washington can be subject to the same forces that catapulted Trump to power – populism and the American far right.

China and Russia must also be smiling in glee, with the American admission of the impossibility of conducting simultaneous conflicts in two regions.

Malaysia is entering a world of uncertain geopolitical realities and flux.

What adds to the instability is the fact that it is ruled by a new coalition of four parties now beset by infighting – and one still due for a possibly messy transition at the top.

Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad still looks set to hands over the reins to Anwar Ibrahim, although there are signs that things are less than rosy behind the scenes – such as when the daughter of the latter quit her posts in government.

The new year seems likely to put Malaysia in a pinch as it looks ahead to 2020.


PHAR KIM BENG is a multiple award-winning head teaching fellow on China and the Cultural Revolution at Harvard University.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

 

 

Singapore’s uphill battle to maintain ASEAN unity


December 3, 2018

Singapore’s uphill battle to maintain ASEAN Unity

by Joel Ng, RSIS

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/11/30/singapores-uphill-battle-to-maintain-asean-unity/

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As year as the ASEAN chair was marked by several milestones in the deepening of regional peace and security. Ahead of the 33rd ASEAN summit from 11–15 November 2018 that finished with Singapore’s official handing over of the chairmanship to Thailand, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan stated that ASEAN ‘actually achieved far more than I dared to anticipate’.

 

As a small nation, Singapore cannot impose its own ideas in regional or global settings. Instead it has the much trickier challenge of convincing other players, each with their own contexts and agendas, that strengthening the multilateral framework is in their best interests.

Tensions in the South China Sea, North Korea’s long-range missile tests and threats of a US–China trade war clouded the end of 2017 and presented a considerable challenge to ASEAN’s ongoing efforts to enhance regional cooperation. Despite the uphill battle, ASEAN and Singapore have played an integral part in ameliorating tensions on all three fronts.

Most recently, the 33rd ASEAN summit made an important contribution to the easing of regional tensions, with China agreeing to participate in talks on the long-proposed South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC). China offered a timeframe of three years for COC negotiations to be completed, which Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared as good progress.

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The COC is perhaps the most important document related to the South China Sea disputes. With competing states attempting to apply different rules to claim legitimate sovereignty over the waters, fears have arisen that conflict could break out over misunderstandings or maritime encounters going wrong. The COC has been in gestation since the 2002 Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea, but has barely progressed in the intervening years.

Claimants agreed upon a draft negotiating text for the COC earlier this year, ahead of the ASEAN–China Post Ministerial Meeting in August 2018, and now China has committed to signing the COC within three years. While this may sound like piecemeal progress, it is important to remember the headwinds facing the discussion: as a much larger power, there is little incentive for China to sign anything at all.

Keeping all parties on board while pushing consensus and norms forward — at a pace that divergent parties can accept — is something ASEAN does well. With Singapore at the helm, ASEAN has helped to keep the COC moving forward without alienating any of the negotiating parties. The significant difference in 2018 has been China’s explicit commitment to a rules-based order, a position it believes distinguishes itself from the United States.

Perhaps the most surprising event of 2018 was the US–North Korea peace talks in Singapore. As recently as 2017, both sides had issued threats against the other. North Korea continued to conduct missile tests, and the murder of Kim Jong-nam had soured its previously cordial relations with Malaysia. Singapore was one of the only plausible choices as a venue because of its high security, positive relations with both sides and an avowed impartiality.

While talks were initially cancelled just weeks before they were to be held, Singapore remained alert and ready for their resumption. The country’s experience in hosting summits put it in good stead for facilitating the dialogue, regardless of uncertainties on either side. The eventually successful engagement demonstrated the importance of Singapore as an open, inclusive and highly efficient state ready to contribute to international security.

ASEAN has paddled against global currents in 2018 to offer hope that multilateral initiatives will continue to bring states closer together on common objectives. But trade tensions between ASEAN’s two largest partners — the United States and China — continue to concern the region. Progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) remains a priority for ASEAN to offset this concern, though negotiations will continue into 2019 after RCEP partners failed to meet the November 2018 deadline.

The initial impetus for Southeast Asia to unite as a region was to buffer individual countries against the pull of larger powers, whose efforts to draw smaller states exclusively towards them are often driven by whimsical domestic agendas. As Prime Minister Lee noted during the opening ceremony of November’s ASEAN summit, ASEAN has raised its standing in the world and made itself greater than the sum of its parts by maintaining a collective voice on global issues.

Singapore’s chairmanship offered a strong restatement of ASEAN’s aims and bolstered the frameworks that were devised to address the myriad concerns of its members. Maintaining unity in the face of these external pressures is probably the best way for ASEAN states to maintain a strong position and secure the best outcomes for their continued growth.

Joel Ng is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article originally appeared here on RSIS.

 

Awkward moments at ASEAN Summit in Singapore


November 17, 2018

Awkward moments at ASEAN Summit in Singapore

by mergawati zulfakar

http://www.thestar.com.my

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IT is an ASEAN homecoming for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the summit hosted by Singapore. The last time he attended an ASEAN Summit was in Bali 15 years ago where then Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri gave a tearful farewell speech.

This week at the 33rd ASEAN summit, all eyes will be on the Prime Minister again as he sits down next to another female leader who he has been critical of in recent weeks.

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And because of ASEAN’s way of doing things, the seating arrangement will be done in alphabetical order – which means Dr Mahathir will be seated next to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.

In his Address at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September, Dr Mahathir blamed Myanmar authorities, including a Nobel Peace Laureate, for closing their eyes to the fate of Muslims in Rakhine state who were being murdered and forced to flee their homes.

 

In an interview conducted the same week in New York, the Prime Minister made it clear that Malaysia would no longer lend its support to Suu Kyi over her handling of the Rohingya. He remarked that Suu Kyi seemed to be a “changed person” and he had lost faith in her.

For years, it was taboo for ASEAN leaders to even mention the word “Rohingya” during their meeting, skirting the issue by using words like Muslims and Rakhine state, bearing in mind ASEAN’s non-interference in the domestic affairs of another country.

But the situation became worse, and it is understood that Malaysia started raising the matter during the leaders’ retreat as recent as three years ago.

“The leaders’ retreat is where they can raise any issue but it will be unrecorded. But when we saw no serious efforts from Myanmar, Malaysia started using ‘Rohingya’ at official meetings,” said an official familiar with the issue.

“Obviously, Myanmar didn’t like it. It was an affront to them. We all know this is beyond the red line for them but we did it,” he added.

And Suu Kyi, who has been attending these summits, showed her displeasure. “You could tell from the body language and all that. She did not like it,” said an official.

At the ASEAN summit, the 10 leaders would normally pose for a group photo holding hands and giving their best smiles to the international media.Even former Prime MInister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak felt uncomfortable, telling his officers it was awkward.

So how would Suu Kyi handle someone who has lost faith in her? Would she care enough to find time and explain to a leader who once fought hard for Myanmar to be a part of ASEAN despite the world condemnation against the military regime that curtailed her freedom?

As for Dr Mahathir, the rest of ASEAN must be looking to him, wondering what he would do next.

“What else is Malaysia doing after such strident statements by the Prime Minister?No ASEAN country in recent times has singled out the leader of a fellow AASEANean country especially on the United Nations platform,” said an official.

When Dr Mahathir says he no longer supports Suu Kyi, what does he mean exactly? Suu Kyi is a legitimate leader who is still popular among her people.

“What is it that you want to do when you make that statement? What message are you sending? “How do you translate it through Malaysia’s foreign policy,” asked an observer.

“Malaysia must realise there could be some repercussion over such remarks. It may affect not only relations with Myanmar but also other ASEAN countries because “we are like a family”.

Whatever the Prime Minister utters is officially national position. Which means officials will have to rationalise it and implement it in the best way that will protect and promote Malaysia’s interests, not only in its relations to the country concerned but also ASEAN and globally.

For Malaysia to play a constructive role, it is important to protect and maintain some level of goodwill and trust. Putting it simply, it is vital to maintain good relations and keep the communication lines open”.–Mergawati Zulfakar

An official admitted that any statement deemed critical of leaders of another country could diminish any measure of trust that remains between Malaysia and Myanmar.

“In ASEAN or even Asia as a whole, face saving is very important. You do not humiliate, you don’t admonish if you want to maintain relations and some form of trust,” the official said.

Going tough on the Rohingya issue started in Najib’s time. Is Dr Mahathir’s speech at UNGA an indication that the current Government is not compromising and will take an even tougher stance on this issue?

Whatever the Prime Minister utters is officially national position. Which means officials will have to rationalise it and implement it in the best way that will protect and promote Malaysia’s interests, not only in its relations to the country concerned but also ASEAN and globally.

For Malaysia to play a constructive role, it is important to protect and maintain some level of goodwill and trust. Putting it simply, it is vital to maintain good relations and keep the communication lines open.

Mergawati Zulfakar –merga@thestar.com.my

ASEAN — finding middle path in the US-China conflict


 

November 9, 2018

Opinion

ASEAN — finding middle path in the US-China conflict

Image result for ASEAN -- finding middle path in the US-China conflict

Despite local uncertainties, the region must be bold in shaping its own future

For almost a decade, the basic strategic issue for Southeast Asia has been how to respond to the changing dynamics of the Sino-American relationship as it enters a new phase of heightened long-term competition.

The U.S. and China will not quickly or easily reach a new modus vivendi. Southeast Asia will have to navigate a prolonged period of unusual uncertainty.

U.S.-China rivalry in the South China Sea has emerged as something of a proxy for their competition. Strategically, the situation is a stalemate. China will not give up its territorial claims and the deployment of military assets. But neither can China stop the U.S. and its allies operating in the area without risking a war it does not want because it cannot win.

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The Trump administration has given the 7th Fleet more latitude to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea. Japan and other U.S. allies are beginning to push back against China’s claims. The U.S. has signaled its intention to conduct even larger shows of force. This raises the risk of accidental clashes. Still, that risk does not at present seem unacceptably high.

A premeditated war is improbable. China will feel it must fight only if the U.S. supports Taiwan independence. This is unlikely. If an accidental clash should occur in the South China Sea or elsewhere, both sides will probably try to contain it. The Association of Southeast Nations ought to be able to cope with situations short of a U.S.-China war. ASEAN has previously managed far more dangerous circumstances. But this will require greater agility, unity and resolve than ASEAN has shown recently.

 

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The most obvious manifestation of increased Sino-American competition is U.S. President Donald Trump’s “trade war.” Trade is the means; the objective is strategic competition. China accuses the U.S. of using trade to hamper its development. China is not wrong.

Although attention has focused on the tit-for-tat tariffs, the more significant aspect is new U.S. legislation to limit technology transfers to China, which sets new rules that future administrations will find hard to change.

Trump’s attitude toward China is no aberration, but reflects a bipartisan view — widely shared in business as well as politics — that the U.S. has been too accommodating to Beijing. Whoever succeeds Trump will likely stay tough on China.

The Trump administration has often been described as isolationist, but this is a distortion. Rather, it believes that this is an era of great power competition and is determined to compete robustly, with a preference for bilateralism over multilateralism, and a return to “peace through strength.”

China has misread the implications of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 by believing its own propaganda about the U.S. being in irrevocable decline. It missed the souring mood of U.S. business toward China, mainly over intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers. These concerns are shared by businesses in other developed economies, which support Trump’s goals although they may disagree about his methods.

President Xi Jinping’s 19th Party Congress speech a year ago abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s approach of “hiding light and biding time.” But his main focus was domestic. Xi said China’s new “principal contradiction” was between “unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.” This poses a fundamental challenge. Unless those needs are met — which will require immense resources — Communist Party rule could be at risk.

To find a new growth model, the party must balance control and market efficiency. An enhanced role for markets implies a loosening of control.

It remains to be seen what Xi will do. So far he seems to have opted for stronger control, and may have sharpened the problems he faces.

The Belt and Road Initiative is as much about this domestic challenge as China’s global ambition. The BRI exports the old growth model based on state-led infrastructure investment. The BRI buys time to find a new balance between the market and the party.

But the BRI rests on the foundation of U.S.-led globalization. Can it succeed if the world turns protectionist? China may well be the main loser if that global order frays. China cannot replace U.S. leadership. An open international order cannot be based on a largely closed Chinese model. BRI partner countries are pushing back, including in Southeast Asia, and implementation will be problematic.

China is not happy with every aspect of the post-Cold War order based on U.S.-led globalization. China wants its new status acknowledged. But Xi has championed and profited from globalization. The trade war is now hurting China and slowing growth. China may seek to become more self-sufficient technologically, but this will take time while the pressures are immediate.

Some have speculated that there may be opportunities for ASEAN if foreign companies shift production from China. This is possible. But doing so is easier said than done and no one will forgo the Chinese market. ASEAN members must also resist temptations to act as a backdoor into the U.S. for Chinese companies.

A prolonged trade war and concerns that China may have compromised the security of supply chains, are likely to upend existing supply links. This could seriously complicate ASEAN members’ efforts to move up the value chain, for example if U.S. groups relocate business back to America. In response, ASEAN must attract higher grade investments by improving infrastructure and skills, and assuring investors their technology is secure.

Low labor costs and a potential market of 700 million consumers are no longer sufficient to make Southeast Asia an attractive investment destination. The attitude of ASEAN members toward China and the extent to which they are beholden to it are likely to become important considerations in investment decisions.

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BALI, Oct 12 — Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has lamented ASEAN for not fully tapping its potential as an economic powerhouse, despite having abundant resources and a consumer market of nearly 700 million people.

ASEAN needs to move decisively to hedge against long-term uncertainties, while taking advantage of available opportunities.

Reforms such as the removal of non-tariff barriers and harmonization of ASEAN’s approach toward services and labor mobility could help make Southeast Asia a common production platform. Member states meanwhile should implement plans to upgrade skills and infrastructure. But internal political changes in some member countries could undermine the goal of closer economic integration. Unfortunately, ASEAN has, in recent years, become too timid for its own good.

 

 

Ambassador A Large Bilahari Kausikan, a former Permanent Secretary at Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is Chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

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How ASEAN can be resilient


September 11, 2018

How ASEAN can be resilient

Borge Brende and Justin Wood / Khmer Times
Image result for wef asean 2018 vietnam
ASEAN has long been praised for its ‘open regionalism’ whereby it pursues economic integration among member states without discriminating against non-ASEAN economies. 

 

As other powers rise, ASEAN is at risk of losing its collective commitment to a shared vision for the region and a common stance on geopolitical issues. Unless ASEAN remains united as a bloc, write Borge Brende and Justin Wood, it will lose its ability to convene regional actors, mediate disputes, and shape principles of international behaviour and interaction.

Is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) resilient enough to thrive amid the regional and global transformations taking place today? While the global economy continues its broad-based expansion, disruptive economic, geostrategic, and technological forces may threaten Asean’s gains of recent years. To survive, Asean members must make important decisions about the role of their community in regional affairs. With the right choices, the region can convert disruption into an opportunity for a resilient future.

ASEAN has undergone an impressive turnaround in the past five decades. A region of turbulence, disharmony, and underdevelopment in the 1960s is today one of relative peace and economic success. Much of the credit belongs to the community-building efforts of the countries under the Asean umbrella. But the region also benefited strongly from the post-World War II global architecture and institutions that promoted inward flows of investment and outward flows of exports.

Today, this global backdrop is in a state of profound transformation. The benefits of free and open trade are being questioned, international institutions are being challenged, new geopolitical powers are rising, and – despite ups and downs – the global economy continues to tilt further toward emerging markets. All of this creates an opportunity for new and competing visions of how the world should be organized and run.

Alongside rising geopolitical uncertainty, ASEAN countries must grapple with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The exponential development of technologies such as artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, precision medicine, and autonomous vehicles is transforming economies, businesses, and societies.

ASEAN members will feel the effects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution acutely. Consider the future of jobs. The working-age population in the bloc is increasing by 11,000 people daily and will continue to grow at this rate for the next 15 years. This demographic expansion is happening just as many existing jobs will be substituted by intelligent automation and AI. Systems of taxation that rely on labour income will come under pressure. National budgets will be challenged at exactly the moment when Asean members must increase their investment in reskilling labour forces and developing infrastructure for this new age.

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Or consider the future of manufacturing. Technologies such as 3D printing and cheap industrial robots are enabling products to be made in small, highly-customized forms rather than large batches of uniform goods. For ASEAN, the shift from centralized global supply chains to localized production systems could have a serious impact on export revenues and the investment by which it is driven.

Faced with these disruptive shifts, ASEAN must strengthen its community. Economically, regional resilience can be bolstered by building a genuine single market: ASEAN has 630 million citizens with rapidly rising spending power. Fully implementing the ASEAN Economic Community will be key. With a strong regional market, ASEAN can drive its own economic destiny, rather than relying on demand from external markets, and will be better insulated against potential protectionist shocks.

Creating a single market for services will be critical. Here, especially, ASEAN members must respond to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, tackling issues such as harmonization of rules governing the use of data. New technologies – including digital platforms, big-data analytics, and cloud-based services – do not recognize national borders and function best when they operate at scale. With a single digital market, ASEAN can develop truly pan-regional services in finance, health care, education, and e-commerce.

Of course, ASEAN should not build a fortress that keeps out the world. Indeed, the bloc has long been praised for its “open regionalism,” whereby it pursues economic integration among member states without discriminating against non-ASEAN economies. This approach has been integral to its economic strategy from the beginning, and continues with the soon-to-be concluded Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership joining ASEAN with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand.

Strengthening the political-security community is equally essential. With the architecture of global governance being challenged, ASEAN members must make their voices heard if they want a world that supports their interests. Individually, Southeast Asia’s countries carry little weight; collectively, however, they represent almost a tenth of the world’s population and nearly 5 percent of its GDP.

Historically, ASEAN has played a pivotal role in facilitating regional relationships, giving rise to the notion of “ASEAN centrality” in Asia. In 1993, the bloc established the ASEANn Regional Forum – now with 27 members – to foster dialogue on political and security concerns. It established the East Asia Summit, currently with 18 member states, in 2005.

Today, however, the geopolitical context is evolving. As other powers rise, ASEAN is at risk of losing its collective commitment to a shared vision for the region and a common stance on geopolitical issues. Many observers believe that other countries are undermining ASEAN n unanimity by developing dependencies with individual countries, built on investment, trade, and assistance. Unless it remains united as a bloc, ASEAN will lose its ability to convene regional actors, mediate disputes, and shape principles of international behaviour and interaction.

The so-called ASEAN way, characterized by consensus-based decision-making and non-interference, has served ASEAN well, and the bloc would be unwise to jettison it. But a reassessment is needed if ASEAN is to speak with a strong voice on regional matters, rather than allowing dissenting voices within the group to prevent the adoption of collective positions. Given that existing global institutions are being challenged, and given the rise of Asia in global affairs, Asean must reinforce its ability to influence the debate.

The World Economic Forum on ASEAN will be held in Hanoi, Vietnam, on September 11-13 and will provide an opportunity for such a reassessment. In an increasingly uncertain world, the need for the countries of ASEAN to deepen their community and their commitment to integration and collaboration is stronger than ever.

Copyright Project Syndicate 2018.

Borge Brende is President of the World Economic Forum; Justin Wood is Head of Asia Pacific and a member of the Executive Committee of the World Economic Forum.

 

 

Foreign Policy: ASEAN is here to stay


July 17, 2018

Foreign Policy: ASEAN is here to stay

by Henrick Z Tsjeng and Shawn Ho / Khmer Times.com.kh

Navy personnel of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea on April 12. Reuters

 

The recent 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) in Singapore saw progress on the South China Sea issue. This demonstrates the importance of ASEAN as a regional anchor and the viability of ASEAN centrality in the midst of geopolitical change, in spite of the regional grouping’s obvious weaknesses and limitations, write Henrick Z Tsjeng and Shawn Ho.

The 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM) and related meetings in Singapore from July 30 to August 4 was generally hailed as a success. Most notably there were no reported delays in the issuance of its joint communique this time round.

This was unlike in previous instances when the joint communique was delayed as a result of seemingly intractable issues, especially the South China Sea disputes. At the ASEAN-China Post Ministerial Conference (PMC), progress was also made with regard to the South China Sea issue – ASEAN and China agreed on a single draft text to negotiate the Code of Conduct (COC). This text will form the basis for future COC negotiations.

Admittedly, such seemingly positive developments do not mean that most obstacles facing ASEAN have been cleared. There remain big questions about the role of ASEAN in the regional architecture and whether ASEAN can continue to play a central role in this regard.

In the midst of the tumultuous geopolitical changes taking place all around the world, ASEAN continues to be the bulwark that holds the Southeast Asian region together. ASEAN centrality and unity remains key to the grouping’s ongoing quest to build a resilient and innovative Asean and to improve its relations with external partners.

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HE Prak Sokhonn, Cambodia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

The South China Sea disputes remain the litmus test of ASEAN’s centrality and unity, given the potential for the disputes to divide the group. While ASEAN is by no means perfect, a Southeast Asia without ASEAN would likely be in worse shape.

At the start of the annual ASEAN-China PMC, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan announced that the foreign ministers from Southeast Asian countries and China have agreed to a draft document that will form the foundation of negotiations for a South China Sea COC. He described it as “yet another milestone in the COC process”.

Even so, Mr Balakrishnan sought to manage expectations by cautioning that negotiations are far from over, and that the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea have not been resolved as the COC “was never meant to resolve territorial disputes”. It should be noted that Singapore had been the country coordinator of ASEAN-China relations for the past three years, during which Mr Balakrishnan had worked tirelessly with his Chinese counterpart to enhance Asean-China relations, notwithstanding Singapore-China relations going through rough patches in those years.

One of the largest concerns observers have raised is the rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape, as a result of major power politics. US-China trade frictions continue to spiral, with no end in sight.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been giving assurances of US interest in the region, such as the $113 million in new technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives for Asia announced before his visit to Southeast Asia, as well as his announcement in Singapore on the US plan to provide $300 million in funding “to reinforce security cooperation throughout the entire (Indo-Pacific) region”.

This notwithstanding, US commitment to upholding the current regional order remains in doubt, especially given President Donald Trump’s protectionist streak and tendency to question the utility of US alliances.

ASEAN has had its share of troubles. Several have questioned the viability of the group’s prized centrality. The South China Sea disputes and the issue of the Rakhine state in Myanmar, with ASEAN’s apparent lack of unity in the former and reported inability to address the latter, have raised doubts about ASEAN’s capabilities to address tough issues.

This has given rise to questions about its centrality. However, that is not to say that all is lost. As the AMM has demonstrated, ASEAN is still well in the game, even if obstacles remain.

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ASEAN is the bulwark that holds the Southeast Asian region together. ASEAN centrality and unity remains key to the grouping’s ongoing quest to build a resilient and innovative ASEAN and to improve its relations with external partners. So being united in common purpose, having an acute sense of  destiny  and  being strong in resolve to preserve regional peace and prosperity, that is the foundation of ASEAN centrality as its move forward into the next 50 years beyond.

In the future, ASEAN’s role as the anchor of the region will become even more important. Despite the greater possibility of US retrenchment from the region, as well as China’s continued growing influence, ASEAN will need to ensure it is steadfast in ensuring its centrality in the region.

The South China Sea will continue to assume significance in ASEAN, given its potential to divide the group. In spite of some claims that ASEAN has a very limited role in the South China Sea disputes, given the fact that only four of its members are actual claimants, ASEAN will need to step up to the plate to ensure its collective interests are respected when it comes to the South China Sea disputes, and to ensure that these do not escalate into full-blown conflict.

In this regard, the AMM has always been addressing this problem, though it is not without its hiccups particularly in 2012 when no joint communique was issued due to disagreements over the South China Sea. Notably, however, the following year saw the joint communique issued with a reference to the South China Sea. Since then, the disputes have been a feature once again in the AMM joint communiques, with the latest one highlighting the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text.

Nonetheless, land reclamations and militarisation on features in disputed areas of the South China Sea continue, and ASEAN will need to address this issue sooner rather than later – possibly a tall order given the current geopolitics surrounding the disputes, particularly with the desire of most ASEAN claimant states to maintain good relations with China, the biggest claimant of all in terms of size, military prowess and economic clout.

Despite the issuance of the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text, it remains unknown when the COC will materialise, especially with the mutually-agreed timeline on negotiations not made public. This is why ASEAN needs to continue to work assiduously to manage the South China Sea disputes and contain any rising tensions.

In light of the ongoing geopolitical flux in the region, ASEAN will increasingly be the anchor of the region’s architecture. The past week’s AMM and related meetings in Singapore have reflected this crucial role that ASEAN plays for the wider region, even beyond Southeast Asia.

Without ASEAN’s efforts, major powers would likely have a much easier time dividing the region over matters such as the South China Sea. Moving forward, ASEAN must continue to proactively work at ensuring its centrality, and to make sure that external countries see value in ASEAN taking the driver’s seat.

Notwithstanding the weaknesses and limitations of ASEAN, it is the onus of the ASEAN member states and community to continue to work closely to ensure that the region remains a core feature of the regional architecture.

Henrick Z. Tsjeng and Shawn Ho are Associate Research Fellows with the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. This article first appeared in RSIS Commentary.