Wednesday, April 24, 2013

ASEAN summit: South China Sea, ASEAN Economic Community to top agenda

It's the first of two annual summits that ASEAN leaders attend each year and this time, they will be meeting in Brunei on 24 and 25 April.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, together with Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, will be at the two-day meeting.

Observers expect the South China Sea issue and achieving the 2015 ASEAN Economic Community target to top the leaders' agenda.

The South China Sea territorial issue has threatened ASEAN's unity and credibility. Cambodia, a China ally, refused to have the issue mentioned in a post-ministerial statement when it hosted the meetings last year.

That drew protests from Vietnam and the Philippines, and ASEAN ended up not issuing an after-conference communique for the first time in the bloc's 45-year history.

China, Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims across the South China Sea, which Beijing claims in its entirety.

Observers say as host and chair this year, Brunei has the ability to be neutral.

Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, Associate Professor Simon Tay, said: "The internal demand is really, how do these four claimants to the South China Sea, the ASEAN members, relate to the non- claimants?

"Will they drag the whole group to their point of view or does the group have to be more neutral. The fundamental difference between last year and this year is the Chinese domestic politics, the change of leader at the very top, but also through a lot of other factors including the role of the PLA (People's Liberation Army)...these are factors which are still at play, and this coming summit may be early for China to really show its full hand."

On the ASEAN Community 2015 target, observers say the grouping is moving in the right direction.

Co-director of the Asia Competitiveness Institute, Associate Professor Tan Khee Giap, said: "ASEAN should have done more and we know that ASEAN members don't trade with one another a lot except Indonesia and Singapore and Singapore and Malaysia.

"The regional environment has changed. ASEAN should rightfully treat all the major economic powers equal handedly, welcome investments, regulate our markets, make it more competitive, by hosting the major investors whether it is the American, the Chinese, the Japanese; it can't be a bad thing, it is only good for us...more than 10-15 years (after the 1997 financial crisis), ASEAN is ready and poised for higher growth. We must put our act together."

Singapore's Foreign Affairs Ministry says that during the Brunei summit, the leaders will also take stock of the implementation of the ASEAN Charter and discuss ASEAN's role in the regional architecture.-Channel News Asia (April 23, 2013)

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