Six takeaways from Asean summits

Under Laos' steady stewardship, they include notable lack of fireworks arising from South China Sea disputes.

Truth be told, there were strong doubts about Laos' ability to carry out its duties objectively and not buckle to Chinese pressure when it assumed the Asean chairmanship in January.

Despite hiccups such as the 49th Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting (AMM) in July - where a debacle was narrowly averted by a last-gasp consensus on the joint communique - the 28th and 29th Asean Summits and related summits passed without any overt flaring of acrimony or debilitating discord that the world has come to expect at Asean meetings of late.

That the summits went smoothly was due to Laos' commendable stewardship, which surprised many Asean watchers. Given that it remains highly dependent on China for trade and investment, Laos was expected to pander to Chinese interests. Instead, it showed that strategic proximity with China and the objective dispensation of Asean chairing duties were not mutually exclusive propositions.

However, the Laos experience in no way signals China's waning influence over the landlocked country of nearly seven million people. On the contrary, it might mean that Beijing has finally realised that muffling Asean through friendly parties in the 10-member organisation only serves to foment regional distrust about China and is ultimately counterproductive to its interest.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's attempts to steal the show in Vientiane with his attire and colourful language notwithstanding, there were at least six notable takeaways from the summits.

Mr Rodrigo Duterte (centre) on his way to the closing ceremony for the Asean Summit in Vientiane last Thursday.  PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

First, the Asean Summit was missing the diplomatic fireworks that were often ignited by the South China Sea disputes. In this respect, Asean and China worked hard to avoid a showdown, which would have left all parties red-faced if a fallout were to occur during the Commemorative Summit to mark the silver jubilee of Asean-China Dialogue Relations. Asean was also eager not to allow the South China Sea issue clout and dominate bilateral ties.

Second, it was noteworthy that the commemoration of 25 years of dialogue relations between Asean and China was celebrated in a low-key fashion. The traditional Chinese diplomatic practice of marking these auspicious occasions with generous displays of soft power, such as pledges to increase bilateral trade and the launching of new educational initiatives, were noticeably absent. Was Beijing showing its displeasure to Asean?

Third, United States President Barack Obama bade farewell to a region which carries his presidency's most successful foreign policy legacy - the rebalance to Asia. Mr Obama has been an ardent supporter of Asean, having attended all but one of the East Asia Summits (EAS) and working hard to elevate longstanding ties with the region. Never has there been a US president in recent memory who is as respected and well-liked throughout South-east Asia as him.

Mr Barack Obama (above) leaving after the closing ceremony. The three-day summit was Mr Duterte's first Asean outing, but the impression made was not a strong one as he missed the Asean-India and Asean-US summits. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Unfortunately, for all his hard work, his swansong comes at a time when many doubt US strategic endurance in the long run. Recently, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke candidly of these doubts when he said in Washington last month at a reception jointly hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce and the US-Asean Business Council that "Asian countries want America to be engaged, but we need to know that this engagement will be sustained, we need to know that agreements will be upheld, and that Asia can depend on America".

Mr Obama's legacy may also be in jeopardy as the Democrat and Republican presidential candidates have disavowed the centrepiece of his rebalance policy. As Mr Obama bids farewell to Asean, will it also mark the beginning of the end of the US rebalance to Asia?

Mr Obama's assurances in Vientiane that "We are here to stay. In good times and bad, you can count on the United States of America", may not be enough to reassure supporters of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, the fate of which rests in the hands of the lame-duck US Congress which will be convened in November following the presidential elections. Mr Obama's legacy may also be in jeopardy as the Democrat and Republican presidential candidates have disavowed the centrepiece of his rebalance policy. As Mr Obama bids farewell to Asean, will it also mark the beginning of the end of the US rebalance to Asia?

Fourth, while Mr Obama has diligently engaged Asean, Russian presidents have been serial absentees at the EAS since Russia joined the 18-member grouping in 2011. Russia's EAS duties were divided between the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister, with Mr Sergey Lavrov attending the first three summits and Mr Dmitry Medvedev filling in for the President since 2014.

The pattern of Russia's representation in the EAS all but confirms Moscow's lack of interest in Asean. Can Russia claim to be an Asian power when its presence in the region is all but symbolic?

Fifth, the three-day summit saw two Asean leaders making their formal debut on the region's largest political stage - Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and President Duterte of the Philippines. The former is no stranger to the political limelight and was eased into the Asean hot seat at the mid-year AMM.

In contrast, it was Mr Duterte's first Asean outing, which turned out to be a baptism of fire - and cold water. The impression made was not a strong one as the Philippine President missed the Asean-India and Asean-US summits.

The missed summits would have been less of a concern if not for the fact that the Philippines is the incoming Asean chair and will formally assume that responsibility in January. What impact would such a diplomatic faux pas have on the Philippines' engagement as Asean chair with the two major powers?

Sixth, the passing of the Asean baton from Laos to the Philippines marks the beginning of a four-year period when Manila is entrusted with increased responsibilities in the Asean-China relationship, first as Asean chair next year, and then taking over from Singapore in the second half of 2018 for three years as the coordinator for the Asean-China dialogue relations. Will tensions spill over to Asean if the ongoing talks with China on the South China Sea disputes go awry?

Laos has successfully passed the Asean chairmanship test and is marking time until the end of the year to formally hand over the Asean mantle to the Philippines. If Mr Duterte's "theatrics" in Vientiane are any indication, the next Asean Summit promises to be unpredictable and eventful.

  • The writer is head of the Asean Studies Centre at the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute.

  • S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2016, with the headline 'Six takeaways from Asean summits'. Print Edition | Subscribe