Com­men­tary:

Bangkok Post - - FRONT PAGE - Kavi Chongkit­ta­vorn is a vet­eran jour­nal­ist on re­gional af­fairs. COM­MEN­TARY Kavi Chongkit­ta­vorn

Asean’s for­eign min­is­ters will meet for the first time un­der Thai­land’s chair­man­ship in Chi­ang Mai on Thurs­day and Fri­day. This “re­treat” comes at a piv­otal mo­ment, as Asean is fac­ing a se­ries of crit­i­cal re­gional and global chal­lenges that re­quire lead­er­ship and clear think­ing to re­olve. In re­turn, Thai­land is hop­ing to get some in­put from fel­low Asean mem­bers to fine tune its agenda and the group’s pol­icy di­rec­tion for the rest of the year. In Chi­ang Mai, the min­is­ters will have about 12 hours to trade views on re­gional is­sues. The dis­cus­sion will be a free-flow­ing ex­change in an at­mos­phere of ca­ma­raderie — just like when the group’s found­ing fa­thers came to­gether to con­ceive Asean in Bangsaen, back in 1967. It is in­ter­est­ing to note that the two-decade old for­mat has been imbed­ded as part of the top ech­e­lon’s con­sul­ta­tive process. These days, Asean lead­ers are no longer shy to speak out their minds. Cam­bo­dia and Malaysia have even aired Asean’s dirty laun­dry for all to see — a far cry from the 1990s. After the fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 1997, Asean was un­der at­tack from all sides for its fail­ure to pre­vent the eco­nomic dis­as­ter. This was mainly due to the lack of frank face-to-face talks, free ex­change of in­for­ma­tion and data (be­yond the of­fi­cial and highly scripted state­ments) and views that could have mit­i­gated the fi­nan­cial melt­down. Amid the cri­sis, the con­tin­ued po­lit­i­cal tur­moil in Cam­bo­dia be­fore its ad­mis­sion to Asean, as well as Myan­mar’s dic­ta­tor­ship, fur­ther tar­nished the bloc’s im­age. Asean re­alised that an­other round of “brain­storm­ing” was needed. This hap­pened un­der Sin­ga­pore’s chair­man­ship in July 1999, when the first min­is­te­rial re­treat was held at Sen­tosa Is­land to dis­cuss Asean prob­lems and de­fine its ties with the rest of the world. Since then, the re­treat has been the main mech­a­nism for Asean lead­ers to speak can­didly, as well as to agree and dis­agree on “the most in­cred­i­ble is­sues” raised by mem­ber coun­tries, as for­mer Asean sec­re­tary-gen­eral Surin Pit­suwan once put it. Nor­mally, the re­treat is held as a gath­er­ing of Asean for­eign min­is­ters. How­ever, over the years, this for­mat has been ex­panded to dis­cuss the crises of the day. In Dec 2016, for ex­am­ple, Myan­mar held a re­treat to dis­cuss the Rakhine cri­sis, even though it was not chair­ing Asean at that time. After each re­treat, com­mon views and stands would be mor­phed into an of­fi­cial Asean po­si­tion, when con­sen­sus is achieved. Thai­land is host­ing the re­treat in this same spirit. In Chi­ang Mai, at least five ma­jor chal­lenges that have been high­lighted from by Asean’s se­nior of­fi­cials — the Indo-Pa­cific ini­tia­tive, the Rakhine cri­sis, the sit­u­a­tion on the Korean Penin­sula, the South China Sea dis­pute, and Asean’s Vi­sion for 2040 — will be dis­cussed. After 15 months of re­flec­tion, Asean has fi­nally come up with its ver­sion of the In­doPa­cific ini­tia­tive, which con­tains sim­i­lar prin­ci­ples and char­ac­ter­is­tics en­shrined in pro­pos­als sent by the US, Ja­pan, In­dia and Aus­tralia. Asean’s ver­sion is not aimed at any third party, and will con­tain five ma­jor el­e­ments: open­ness, in­clu­sive­ness, trans­parency, a rule-based in­ter­na­tional or­der, and the cen­tral­ity of Asean. At the re­treat, the min­is­ters have to de­cide whether to re­tain “Indo-Pa­cific” in the ini­tia­tive’s name, as pro­posed by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, or re­place it with a new one. In­done­sia has been tasked to draft the Asean ver­sion, in close con­sul­ta­tion with the chair. The new frame­work — when it is agreed upon — will re­flect the bloc’s strat­egy to main­tain its cen­tral­ity and rel­e­vance. De­spite the fight­ing in Rakhine state and the on­go­ing hic­cups over refugee repa­tri­a­tions, Asean and Myan­mar are com­mit­ted to work to­gether to ad­dress hu­man­i­tar­ian con­cerns. Asean Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Dato Paduka Lim Jock Hoi met with State Coun­sel­lor and For­eign Min­is­ter Aung San Suu Kyi last month in Nay Pyi Taw, where she ex­pressed con­fi­dence and re­spect for Asean and its fu­ture role in Rakhine state. After Asean’s as­sess­ment team fin­ishes its work in the trou­bled re­gion later this month, it is hoped that Asean and Myan­mar will know ex­actly what is needed. The Jakarta-based Asean Co­or­di­nat­ing Cen­tre for Hu­man­i­tar­ian As­sis­tance on dis­as­ter man­age­ment (AHA Cen­tre) will play a key role in co­or­di­nat­ing trust-bui­lid­ing mea­sures in Rakhine to fa­cil­i­tate safe and sound repa­tri­a­tions. Thai­land hopes that Asean will be able to es­tab­lish a spe­cial fund to help Myan­mar, and Ja­pan has al­ready ex­pressed the will­ing­ness to pro­vide fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance for this en­deav­our. With re­gards to the de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion of North Ko­rea, Asean is ex­pected con­tinue to sup­port all ef­forts to ease ten­sions and pro­mote di­a­logue be­tween the two Koreas. That may help ex­plain why Asean is re­fus­ing to down­grade ties with Py­ongyang, de­spite strong pres­sure from the US, while im­ple­ment­ing rel­e­vant UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions. If progress is seen on de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion and in­ter-Korean ties after the planned sec­ond Trump-Kim meet­ing, the Asean chair would en­cour­age Asean to fur­ther en­gage and in­clude North Ko­rea in the re­gional scheme of things. In fact, Kim Jong-un could be one of the chair’s in­vited guests for the early Novem­ber ren­dezvous with other global lead­ers. Ne­go­ti­a­tions on the code of con­duct in the South China Sea with China are ex­pected to con­clude un­der Thai­land’s chair­man­ship. Bei­jing has pre­vi­ously said that it wants both sides to be able to thor­oughly re­solve the dis­pute by 2021, and its as­sur­ances to Asean to main­tain the se­cu­rity and free­dom to nav­i­gate through the dis­puted area have helped to foster trust be­tween them. Last Novem­ber, both sides en­dorsed the Asean-China Strate­gic Vi­sion for 2030. At this point, Asean is cau­tiously em­brac­ing Pres­i­dent Xi Jing­ping’s new con­cept of “a com­mu­nity of shared fu­ture for mankind”. How­ever, without sta­bil­ity in the trou­bled sea, China’s new ap­proach will re­main a pipe dream. One ex­tra­or­di­nary thing that Thai­land has done as Asean chair is that it has be­gun to con­cep­tu­alise Asean’s di­rec­tion for the next 20 years — es­sen­tially re­plac­ing “Asean Vi­sion 2020”, which has been made rather ob­so­lete by the swift and dis­rup­tive changes that oc­curred in the past few years. While its goals re­main rel­e­vant, Thai­land has com­mis­sioned the Jakarta-based Eco­nomic Re­search In­sti­tute of Asean and East Asia to con­duct a study of “Asean Vi­sion 2040”, with in­put from ex­perts in the re­gion. The chair will then re­port its find­ings and rec­om­men­da­tions to the min­is­ters in a re­port ti­tled “Step­ping Boldly For­ward: Trans­form­ing the Asean Com­mu­nity”. Thailan’s fourth ten­ure as Asean’s chair is more im­por­tant than ever. It gives Thai­land the chance to re­new its im­age and es­tab­lish nor­malcy after al­most five years of mil­i­tary rule, which is what the re­gion needs to move for­ward.

AFP

A worker cy­cles past life-size por­traits of the 10 lead­ers of Asean at a cul­tural fes­ti­val in Lumpini Park, Bangkok.

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