Before global leaders converge in Bandar Seri Begawan later this week for a series of summits with Asean counterparts, they all have a long wish-list for their brief stopovers. Officials of Asean and members of East Asia Summit are still working days and nights to ensure their leaders get what they want. The US, China, Japan and India are breathing down hard on Asean&’s neck to ensure successful encounters for their leaders.
For the first Asean-US Summit—previously there were just the leaders’ meetings—the US wants an agreement on the new Asean-US Expanded Economic Engagement (E3) Initiative. Washington is pushing for this new framework to expand trade and investment ties with Asean while at the same time going ahead with the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Without US President Barack Obama&’s presence, the TPP will not get the right boost.
Quite a few Asean countries are not happy with the US’ attitude as it is pressuring the grouping for a common position on the E3 initiative, an upgradation of the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA). American trade negotiators assured Asean the E3 will be non-binding. But Asean does not buy it, knowing fully well it would change in the future. Moreover, Laos is the only Asean member that has not yet signed the TIFA. Since 2006, Washington has made opening up of services and investment in the Asean region its priority areas.
Both sides are also working on the language related to security issues as regards the Syria crisis and ban on chemical weapons. Asean countries have issued statements to support the US-Russia agreement on banning the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Thailand came out with the strongest views, condemning Syria&’s record on chemical weapons.
Other regional issues including nuclear non-proliferation, the Korean Peninsula crisis and progress on negotiation for a code of conduct in the South China Sea will be on the agenda of the Asean-US summit.
For China, expansion of the Asean-China free trade agreement would be the key issue. China&’s enthusiasm has caused concern within Asean as it negotiates the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Asean wants the RCEP to be better than the current Asean plus one FTAs. If China expands the current FTAs, it will affect future RCEP negotiations over incentives with other non-Asean members. It is unclear if China is willing to give the same privileges to Japan, Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand under the RCEP.
China and Asean are also finalising the planned joint statement for the 10th anniversary of their strategic relationship. As the first strategic dialogue partner of Asean, China has placed the grouping&’s interest as its top foreign policy priority. The Chinese President Xi Jingping as well as its Premier have iterated China&’s new development and people-oriented approach towards Asean, with focus on strengthening defence and security cooperation.
China is also very keen to hold a defence and security dialogue with Asean at the ministerial level annually—an idea first broached with Indonesia last year. But there is no consensus on this issue among Asean members. Currently, Asean and China have over 40 mechanisms to engage with each other across all sectors and levels. However, there is no exclusive Asean-China ministerial meeting on defence.
For Japan, Asean remains a key player in its future economic and strategic development plans. All Asean leaders have agreed to attend a commemorative summit to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Asean-Japan ties in mid-December. Both sides want to fully implement the Asean Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership signed in 2008. Five years have elapsed, but some hiccups still persist in services and investment.
Apart from strengthening economic cooperation, Japan and Asean are contemplating ways to strengthen their political and security cooperation. Recently, Japan has intensified its peace-building efforts in Myanmar, the Philippines and Indonesia. In March, Tokyo appointed Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation, as a special envoy to help with the ethnic reconciliation in Myanmar. Japan has also forged closer maritime security cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam.
Although India and Asean celebrated the 20th anniversary of their ties last December, their relations remain sluggish. Progress on implementing a comprehensive free trade agreement signed in 2012 has been slow. The signing of an agreement on trade in services and investment, delayed since last December, will be undertaken in Bali during the 9th World Trade Organisation Ministerial Conference in December, not in Bandar Seri Begawan this week as earlier scheduled.