Why It Matters

Little progress at Asean talks

As the clock ticks down to Dec 31, the date to establish the Asean Community, the 10-member regional grouping faces the prospect of ending the year with more problems than it started with.

In both intra-Asean and wider diplomatic relations, Asean states appear to be repeatedly, if not constantly, agreeing that they must do more in addressing a host of topics. This trend continued at the 48th Asean Ministerial Meeting in Kuala Lumpur, which concluded on Thursday.

Issues concerning overlapping claims with China over the South China Sea are longstanding, but the slow progress of negotiations and stickiness over the wording of joint communiques are showing up Asean's inability to be greater than the sum of its parts. China claims nearly all of the resource-rich waters through which US$5.3 trillion (S$7.3 trillion) in trade passes each year.

If anything, on the South China Sea dispute, it was China which took a bold step, by declaring that it had stopped work in the waters, while Asean again issued calls for a halt to land reclamation, construction and militarisation of land features in the disputed waters.

The other nations say they have yet to verify China's claim that it has stopped reclamation. But such a development can perhaps pave the way for material progress to be made on negotiations to resolve the claims that could threaten the peace and security of South-east Asia.

Earlier this year, the world was shocked by the plight of migrants and refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar who travelled in abject conditions on boats down the Bay of Bengal, or met their end in mass graves along the Thai-Malaysia border.

The Asean foreign ministers could only muster an adoption of "commitments" previously set out by security ministers.

This leaves Asean with just the leaders' summit in November to unveil some kind of concrete and binding progress on these varied issues.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2015, with the headline 'Little progress at Asean talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe