The Asianist

Balanced and fact-based analysis of Asian affairs

Posts Tagged ‘ASEAN

Indian Cabinet Clears ASEAN-India FTA For Approval

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Yesterday, the Indian cabinet finally cleared the free trade agreement on services and investment with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for approval, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reportedly overruling objections by the finance ministry.

The pact, which has encountered repeated delays and is way past its August 2013 deadline, was held up again last month due to differences between Indian finance minister P Chidambaram and commerce minister Anand Sharma, which allegedly prevented it from being signed in the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Bali earlier this month. Mr. Chidambaram was reportedly concerned that Mr. Sharma did not adequately consult the finance ministry on the investment text of the agreement, in addition to several issues regarding the pact itself.

The cabinet clearance is significant because it now paves the way for India to ink the pact with ASEAN as soon as possible. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said at the 11th ASEAN-India Summit earlier this year that his government’s goal would be to conclude the pact by the end of 2013, and while that looks unlikely at this time, New Delhi has at least avoided the humiliation of backtracking from a key commitment within the ASEAN-India relationship. The irony has not been missed by those watching ASEAN-India ties carefully, since Mr. Singh’s government had repeatedly said in the past that India was more committed to this pact than some ASEAN countries but the recent roadblock has come from New Delhi.

That is important because while ASEAN countries and other external powers are eager for India to play a greater role in the Asia-Pacific and New Delhi has shown an increasing willingness to do so, the follow-through has been tortuous on some initiatives. For instance, several Southeast Asian governments faced similar frustrations when ASEAN and India were negotiating an FTA in goods, which saw several delays and almost fell through before being finally concluded in 2011 after six long years.

But concluding this FTA is not just a question of pride or symbolism. As I have written before, Indian officials, including Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, have warned that further delays in the agreement could undermine the goal of boosting ASEAN-India trade to $100 billion by 2015. The pact also has tangible benefits for New Delhi itself, including the movement of Indian professionals in Southeast Asia and greater investments in the services sector.

While Mr. Singh deserves credit for finally securing cabinet approval for the deal, his government should seek to conclude it as soon as possible to prevent it from being ensnared once again in Indian domestic politics with an election looming.

Written by Prashanth Parameswaran

December 20, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Strengthening Ties Between Europe and Asia

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Earlier this month, I published a commentary with a think tank in Singapore on strengthening ties between Europe and Southeast Asia. It has since been republished by the EU-Asia Centre.

In it, I outline several steps to sustain Europe’s recent increasing attention to Southeast Asia in the economic, security and cultural realms. While much ink has been spilled on America’s pivot to Asia, I continue to believe it is important to pay equal attention to the EU’s shift to the East as well.

Here is an excerpt:

During his visit to Singapore recently German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle made a convincing case for deeper European Union engagement in Asia and more specifically with ASEAN. Germany is hardly alone in recognising this. Indeed, 2012 seemed to be the year of Europe’s pivot to Asia. Leading officials attended key Asian summits, and the EU made advances in its relationship with ASEAN by suspending sanctions on Myanmar, acceding to the ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and completing a successful ministerial meeting in April.

But while ASEAN-EU ties have certainly warmed recently due to Europe’s increasing interest in the region, “upgrading” the relationship between the world’s two major regional integration initiatives will require sustained and significant progress by both sides across several areas in the coming years…

You can read the full thing here.



Written by Prashanth Parameswaran

March 18, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Thinking About Asia Economic Strategy for the Second Obama Administration

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The stellar group of Asia hands at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has released an updated report articulating policy recommendations for the second Obama administration with respect to economic strategy in Asia.

The report covers several key countries including Japan, Korea, India, China and ASEAN. Some of the recommendations include supporting ASEAN ‘connectivity’ efforts and working towards a full US-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (FTA), expanding cooperation with Japan and Korea in the G-20 and bringing them into the fold of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), establishing an ambitious 10-year “New Framework for U.S.-India Economic Cooperation”, and modifying the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) with China.

There is also a list of lessons learned recommended for policymakers drawing partly on an earlier report released on the subject for Obama’s first term, which deals with issues like negotiation, public relations and bureaucratic politics.

One of the key challenges that the study highlights for the future of Asia economic policy is the resource constraints in Washington:

For the United States to have an effective strategy in Asia, and to be taken seriously by partners there, it must have sufficient talent and resources for the job. At present, U.S. government personnel and funding devoted to Asia policy, especially in the economic arena, are insufficient to the size, challenges, and opportunities of the region. In particular, the State Department and other agencies traditionally focused on political and security issues need more senior officials versed in Asian economics.

You can read the full thing here.

Written by Prashanth Parameswaran

January 28, 2013 at 10:58 pm

Will the U.S. Pivot to Asia Sustain Through 2013?

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CSIS Asia hand Mike Green has his doubts about whether President Barack Obama can sustain the U.S. pivot or rebalance to Asia unveiled during his first term:

Given that 2013 could be the year of reckoning on Iran’s nuclear program, not to mention the likely denouement for Syria, John Kerry will require real strategic discipline to keep a focus on Asia. The administration has also had some difficulty managing the inherent tension between engaging China and maintaining a favorable balance of power in the region.  Allies such as Japan and the Philippines worry that in the second term the administration may tilt back towards an emphasis on reassuring, rather than dissuading, Beijing.  That would be unfortunate, since lack of consistency on that front hurt the administration in the first term with both the allies and Beijing.

Engagement of ASEAN is a noted success for this administration, but the terrain could become tougher in the years ahead, given renewed ethnic conflict in Burma, leadership transitions in Indonesia, and domestic political problems in Vietnam, Malaysia and elsewhere. A strong U.S. Trade Representative empowered to move forward on the Trans-Pacific Partnership would certainly help the sustainability of the Pivot, particularly with ASEAN.  Finally, all eyes will be on the defense budget. A carefully managed cut to defense spending that allows reprogramming for naval and air force capabilities in the Pacific is necessary.  Sequestration that throws the defense establishment into chaos would damage the region’s image of American strategic competence.

I have highlighted similar concerns in several recent pieces, including here.

Words of Wisdom from Outgoing ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan

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The end of the new year is also the end of ASEAN’s Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan’s five year term in his position. In an article for The Diplomat, I took a look at the advice Surin has been offering Southeast Asia before leaving his post. 

At the end of this year, ASEAN’s dynamic Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan will officially leave his post after five eventful years. Over the last year or so, as he has been reflecting on his tenure in the position, he has been offering his advice on how the organization can confront the vast array of future challenges that lie before it.

One issue Surin has spoken about is Myanmar’s ongoing transformation. This has been one of the most significant developments during Surin’s tenure, and he has been outspoken about it both as a success story for ASEAN and also as a potential concern. Asked recently what the main highlight was during his time as Secretary-General, he pointed to ASEAN’s important role in the opening up of Myanmar by “bringing the world in and raising the level of comfort of the leadership” to engage with the international community, which began during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. For Surin, Myanmar “validated” ASEAN’s approach of giving the country time and space rather than the Western path of slapping it with sanctions.

But the Secretary-General has also offered warnings about ethnic violence in Myanmar, particularly the persecution and discrimination against its minority Rohingya Muslims. In October, Surin proposed setting up tripartite talks between ASEAN, the United Nations and Myanmar despite repeated calls by Naypyidaw that it was an internal matter. “Myanmar believes it is their internal matter,” Surin said in Kuala Lumpur, “but your internal matter could be ours the next day if you are not careful”. His comments applied not only to Myanmar, but also to the broader debate about the applicability of ASEAN’s prized “non-interference” in member states’ affairs. He also warned in no uncertain terms that if sectarian violence in Myanmar was not curbed, the country’s persecuted minority Rohingya Muslims “could become radicalized and the entire region could become destabilized”. He repeatedly urged ASEAN members to extend humanitarian assistance to alleviate the situation.

The Secretary-General has also spoken extensively on the South China Sea (SCS) issue, which led to ASEAN’s failure to issue a joint communique in July for the first time in its history. Surin has said that the SCS has the risk of becoming “Asia’s Palestine” if ASEAN and China do not resolve it quickly. He advocated for a two-pronged approach — putting aside contested claims and minimizing the current potential for miscalculation, while also finding ways to jointly share the natural resources located in the waters. On the first count, he has encouraged ASEAN’s attempts to move forward on talks concerning a code of conduct with China and even publicly floated the idea of a SCS hotline with Beijing to contain miscalculation before a regional summit last month. But he has equally and subtly stressed the need for reciprocity from China. At ASEAN’s November meeting, he noted that while ASEAN was committed to finding a resolution to the SCS issue, “it takes two to tango.”

On sharing resources, in a recent interview he cited a potential “joint development area” emerging between ASEAN countries and China where all parties could tap the resource potential in the SCS. “Leave that [contested territorial disputes] for the future, but along the way let’s benefit from the resources,” Surin said, citing the Malaysia-Thailand Joint Development Area in the Gulf of Thailand as a model.

But most of Surin’s comments have arguably focused on ASEAN’s internal challenges. In an interview at Australian National University earlier this year, he said ASEAN’s greatest challenge during the next five years would be trying to integrate as a grouping despite the diversity among member states. If the organization did not get its act together on forging an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the end of 2015 to narrow the vast economic divide between countries, Surin said it risked “being a two-tiered ASEAN” which would undermine its efforts to play a central role in Asia-Pacific integration. Asked in February what kept him awake at night, he again focused on ASEAN integration, saying he felt it should “go faster” and was worried that member states were seeking “to keep to themselves.”

Besides the issue of economic integration, the Secretary-General has also placed a lot of emphasis on strengthening the power of the ASEAN Secretariat. Indeed, that was the focus of his last major ASEAN briefing delivered last month. Referring partly to a report he had presented to ASEAN last year on the subject, Surin’s suggestions on strengthening ASEAN’s institutional capacity range from addressing how decisions might be made in the absence of consensus, to formalizing regulations and increasing resources in particular fields.

Stressing the importance of this, Surin claimed, “if the secretariat had been given a larger space, more engagement — the impasse in July could have been avoided — not that I did not try but it is the structure that would not allow me to be involved.” As I have pointed our several times before, having a strong Secretariat will be important as ASEAN is chaired by either smaller or less-developed states in the years ahead, such as Brunei in 2013, Myanmar in 2014 and Laos in 2016.

As Surin steps off the stage, his successor, Vietnam’s Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh, will have large shoes to fill at a critical time for ASEAN. The goal of Surin’s tenure, the outgoing Secretary-General says, was to make ASEAN a household name. On this front, he has largely been successful. But now that all eyes are on ASEAN, it will be up to the grouping’s future leaders to preserve its centrality in the region in the wake of daunting internal and external challenges.

This piece was originally published for The Diplomat. You can read it here.

After the EAS, How Can ASEAN Get Past the South China Sea?

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The 7th East Asia Summit (EAS) held last week was notable for a number of reasons, including the launching of a new regional free trade agreement and the introduction of several U.S. proposals on energy and maritime security. But the elephant in the room once again was the South China Sea (SCS) and disagreements among ASEAN countries stoked in part by China.

Just over four months ago, ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement at its foreign minister’s meeting for the first time because host nation, Cambodia, insisted that language on the SCS should not even be mentioned. Many suspected that China had used its economic leverage on Cambodia to ensure ASEAN remained divided on the issue, and a few reports even suggested Cambodian officials had shared drafts of the statement with Chinese interlocutors.

Those who were perturbed by those developments are unlikely find any relief from developments of the past week. This time, at the ASEAN Summit, Cambodia tried to force through the idea that ASEAN leaders had come to a consensus “that they will not internationalize the South China Sea issue from now on”, in the words of Foreign Ministry official Kao Kim Hourn. The trouble is that the language, which was strikingly similar to Chinese mantras, did not reflect what was agreed upon. At least five ASEAN countries objected and Cambodia was eventually forced to remove the controversial language from the final declaration. The Philippines was particularly vexed, with President Benigno Aquino openly rebuking Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario insisting that there was an attempt to translate statements “into a consensus without our consent”.

While Cambodia was attempting to dilute ASEAN’s consensus on the SCS, China was seeking to downplay the issue within the EAS’ multilateral setting. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao repeated the all-too-familiar Chinese assertion that territorial disputes should not be discussed at multilateral events but bilaterally between China and each of the ASEAN claimant states. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang and Chinese envoys also repeatedly attempted to sidestep the issue, saying that it should not be a “stumbling block” in ASEAN-China relations and that the main focus of the EAS should be greater economic cooperation amid the international financial crisis. ASEAN had in fact agreed to formally ask China to start talks on a code of conduct (CoC) on the SCS before the EAS had begun, according to outgoing ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan, but Premier Wen played down the need for urgent action on the issue. “On the ASEAN side, we are ready, willing and very much committed, but it takes two to tango”, Pitsuwan said.

Given that tensions over the SCS have dominated two rounds of meetings this year, how can ASEAN ensure that this will not happen again next year? The Philippines, twice bitten and thrice shy, announced after the EAS that it will host a meeting in Manila on December 12 with fellow claimants Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia. The four countries should use this as an opportunity to coordinate strategies on how to best advance their claims to China in a more unified way. One way to do so would be to make their claims explicit by codifying them in domestic legislation and multilateral frameworks in accordance with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), followed by a process where stakeholders clarify convergences and divergences. Only by being clear about their own claims can ASEAN states prevent China from exploiting divisions and ambiguities that exist within the bloc in future summits or dealings. That will also help facilitate negotiations on the CoC between ASEAN states and China.

Furthermore, ASEAN countries should continue to engage with next year’s ASEAN chair (and SCS claimant) Brunei on how it plans on handling the SCS issue in multilateral forums as appropriate. Brunei has traditionally preferred a low-key approach in dealing with contentious issues like the SCS, exemplified during ASEAN deliberations in July this year when its delegation simply said it would be “guided by” the decision of the ASEAN chair, as opposed to other claimants who insisted on a reference to the dispute in the joint communique. In 2013, the government in Bandar Seri Begawan will no longer have the luxury of simply deferring to other countries or remaining neutral as ASEAN chair. If Brunei needs any advice or guidance on tackling divisive issues, the organization’s more experienced members should be prepared to provide it.

Lastly, ASEAN states should not give in to intimidation by China on the SCS. Beijing has used such tactics in the past with claimant states, with its China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) calling for foreign oil and gas companies to explore nine blocks in disputed waters in violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty and its quarantine of imported tropical fruit from the Philippines after saber-rattling in the Scarborough Shoal. A new wave of intimidation appears to be taking shape just a few days after China downplayed territorial disputes at the EAS, with Beijing releasing fresh passports containing a map of China which includes parts of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and others as well as disputed territory on the Indian border. Asian countries have rightly expressed outrage at the move and have responded by refusing to stamp them or drawing up their own maps. It is important that these countries continue to register their official protests in this manner in case Beijing tries to assert later on that stamping the passports could be regarded as effectively endorsing its claims.

Cambodia’s chairmanship this year has shown ASEAN that it is only as strong as its weakest link. In order to prevent outside actors from exploiting divisions within the bloc, ASEAN states must redouble their efforts at unifying their positions where they should and taking a clear stand where they must. Only then can the bloc continue to effectively occupy the driver’s seat in pushing for greater regional integration in the Asia-Pacific.

This piece originally appeared in The Diplomat. You can read that version here.

Written by Prashanth Parameswaran

November 27, 2012 at 12:24 am

How Does ASEAN Recover After Phnom Penh?

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I’ve published a piece over at The Diplomat on what ASEAN should do after its unprecedented ‘failure’ to issue a joint communique at the foreign minister’s meeting in Phnom Penh earlier this month. You can read the full thing here, but I’m also placing it below.

Soul Searching After Phnom Penh

Prashanth Parameswaran

Questions are still being asked about ASEAN’s unprecedented failure to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in its 45-year history at Phnom Penh earlier this month due to disagreements over the South China Sea. Regardless of what transpired at the meeting, it was an embarrassing moment for ASEAN and it raises questions about the ability of the organization to preserve its autonomy and centrality amidst great powers with the potential to dominate the region. If the grouping needs to do some “soul searching” over the next few months, as ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan put it, where should it start?

A logical start should be to try to make some progress on the South China Sea (SCS), since events at Phnom Penh illustrated that intra-ASEAN divisions on the issue can clearly tarnish the organization’s image.

As a first step, the four ASEAN claimants- the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia- should aim to clarify and codify their various South China Sea (SCS) claims in order to present a more unified front to China, as others have advised. Beijing has a proven record of exploiting ambiguity to make contradictory claims in the SCS, some of which have very little basis in international law.

If ASEAN countries make their claims explicit by codifying them in domestic legislation and multilateral frameworks in accordance with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), they can sort out areas where disputes are particularly intractable and aspects where their opinions converge. The ball would then be in China’s court to clarify the basis for its own claims. As of now, ambiguity on the SCS only allows Beijing to make dubious claims while simultaneously exposing divisions within ASEAN. While ASEAN should continue efforts toward a code of conduct with China, there is no substitute for clarity on this question.

Secondly and more broadly, ASEAN as a grouping should redouble efforts to preserve its centrality and cohesion. The organization is receiving greater international scrutiny these days and it will continue to grapple with tough issues like the SCS in the future. Yet at the same time, much like Cambodia in 2012, the next few years will see ASEAN chaired by smaller or less-developed states (Brunei in 2013, Burma in 2014, Laos in 2016). While these countries are capable in their own right, they may not have the same capacity to drive regional integration or tackle contentious disputes as an Indonesia or Singapore. And while Southeast Asia has other great leaders, it will be difficult to sustain the decade of vigorous and dynamic leadership ASEAN has enjoyed under Secretary Generals Ong Keng Yeong (2004-2008) and Surin Pitsuwan (2008-2012).

Confronting this challenge will require greater efforts on various fronts. For one, ASEAN must move faster on its goal of creating an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2015, given that the bloc is behind on several aspects of that initiative. Greater regional cohesion creates a stronger collective identity among all members of the organization and strengthens economic linkages between them, both of which will incentivize putting ASEAN first. But if states choose to “keep to themselves,” as Pitsuwan told the Myanmar Times earlier this year that will only hold ASEAN back. Repeats of Phnom Penh could also be avoided by agreeing on innovative ways to express legitimate disagreements, which will require flexibility from both the chair and other ASEAN countries. And if future crises do occur, solving them may require ASEAN’s older members to demonstrate leadership and innovation, like Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa’s “shuttle diplomacy”’ that led to the organization’s six-point principle agreement on Friday.

Outside actors like the United States and China should continue to support a strong and united ASEAN. Despite its shortcomings, the organization remains the best hub around which to structure a regional architecture that will socialize actors into a set of acceptable norms and behaviors, and guide Asia towards a prosperous and peaceful future. Equally important, they should also resist short-sighted attempts to undermine the bloc’s unity or exploit its divisions, since they will only undermine this shared goal and leave themselves increasingly isolated in a more integrated world.



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