Why It Matters

Asean united in one voice

What will perhaps be most remembered from Asean's 50th ministerial meetings this past week in Manila is not so much what was discussed, but how the region's top diplomats were able to agree on issues that often drove a wedge between them.

Take the North Korea conundrum, for instance. A day before Asean foreign ministers officially began their meetings, they had already rallied round a strongly worded statement that even had a marked shift in tone.

Unlike in the past, when responsibility for raising tensions in the Korean peninsula was spread among "all parties concerned", the ministers placed the blame squarely on Pyongyang for conducting missile and nuclear tests.

The ministers did run into an impasse concerning the often contentious issues surrounding the South China Sea. But it was not as big as to threaten to derail the whole exercise, as in past meetings.

In fact, the ministers were able to issue a joint communique two days before they ended talks yesterday. That, in itself, is remarkable, considering there were past meetings when no statement was issued, or when it took days before one was.

To top that, Asean and China adopted a framework that should pave the way for official talks on a code of conduct (COC) on disputes in the South China Sea - decades in the making - to begin by year's end.

All that was made possible by what Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan described as the positive tone and calmer situation pervading the meetings between Asean and China.

This is not to say that things will be fine from here on. Discussions on the COC itself, for instance, are expected to be heated and difficult.

But for now, Asean can take satisfaction in the thought that it is indeed possible for it to sail in one direction.

That is a good sign, especially for Singapore, which will take the helm as Asean chair next year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2017, with the headline 'Asean united in one voice'. Print Edition | Subscribe