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The Straits Times says

Asean hopes up on ground signals

Those who follow Asean affairs know that the 10-nation grouping is prone to issuing protracted communiques at the end of its summits. This year's 30th annual summit meeting was in character with Manila, the chair, proclaiming a 124-paragraph statement. The subjects touched upon were varied: from North Korea and Timor Leste's interest in joining the grouping, to biodiversity and the Asean Economic Community.

As always, much of the attention focused on the key lines, carried in the concluding portion of the statement, pertaining to the South China Sea. And, as before, it was diplomatic smoke and mirrors: China was not named and any mention of land reclamation and militarisation was treated as a sensitive issue. Instead, the statement issued reaffirmed the importance of "the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities, and avoiding activities that may further complicate the situation and pursuing the peaceful resolution of disputes, without resorting to the threat or use of force". That captures the sum of Asean's anxieties and hopes related to security.

Once again, Asean chose to make the point without finger-pointing - partly a reflection of the body hewing to its traditional ways of frank conversations backstage while avoiding loud recrimination in public. It also reflects expectations stemming from a changing climate. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed to the Singapore media, the temperature has eased somewhat in the year past. The focus is now on the conclusion of an agreed framework on a Code of Conduct between the grouping and China. There is optimism that this framework, a key step on the road to a fuller agreement, will be accomplished by June.

Another priority is to swiftly clinch a high-quality Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). An Asean-centred affair, the trade agreement draws Asean's dialogue partners in its economic web. While not as ambitious as the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership, this one embraces all of Asean and comes at a time when it is essential for the region to show that it is inclusive and open to the world. Two key chapters in the 15-chapter agreement have been firmed up so far. Already two years delayed, RCEP needs a greater push now - if necessary, by adopting a Minus One formula where foot-draggers are kept out of an initial accord, with the option of signing on later when they are ready.

As it passes its 50th anniversary, Asean is taking shape as a vibrant community and economic marketplace. The region has a combined GDP in excess of US$2.5 trillion (S$3.5 trillion) and trade of over US$1 trillion. Greater integration will undoubtedly boost the momentum. For that to happen, Asean's collective hopes must be able to rise above the individual anxieties of some members.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2017, with the headline 'Asean hopes up on ground signals'. Print Edition | Subscribe