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Asean unified after Brunei's positive term at helm

Publication Date : 14-10-2013


"Generally positive" is the verdict on Brunei's chairmanship. That feedback, which came from a mid-term review of the Asean Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC), described the level of implementation by Asean members of their action plans. It also aptly depicted the outcome of nine Asean-related summits. Compared to the previous year, Asean is now more unified and in better shape, standing tall and moving ahead.

First of all, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah should be credited with painstakingly laying the foundation for smooth Asean summits. This year the Sultan has travelled widely, visiting key members of the East Asia Summit (EAS) to familiarise himself and get to know their leaders. Although the Sultan has chaired Asean three times previously, last week's summit, his fourth, was very special due to the new regional strategic environment and pressing issues confronting Asean. The 67-year old monarch displayed both stamina and familiarity of complex issues and power games to bring about a fruitful conclusion.

From day one, Brunei's chair set forth three objectives: reducing tension in the South China Sea, accelerating Asean economic integration and promoting Asean's youthful role and profile. Along the way, new issues popped up including the Asean Community's post-2015 vision which brought new elements to future Asean agendas, i.e. double combined GDP - from US$2.25 trillion to US$4.4 trillion - and halving poverty from 18.6 per cent 9.3 per cent.

The 180-minute EAS encounter showed the comprehensiveness of issues discussed—developmental, economic and security. For future EAS meetings, it will serve as a template. The discussion of the South China Sea dispute, the EAS highlight, was smooth, as the chair intended. Sultan Bolkiah gave a positive view of progress made in the process of code of conduct (COC) negotiations and commended Thailand for its role as a coordinator for Asean-China relations.

But the Philippines was clear that it prefers a two-pronged approach—the Asean Way and the UN way through arbitration. In response, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang believed the "Asian Way" was better for Asean and China to resolve their mutual problems. At the EAS all conflicting and concerned parties supported the COC process even though they did not have a clue on how long it might take.

That was why the US Secretary of State intervened during the EAS session, reiterating that continued dialogue is pivotal, and that more action was needed. It would have been better if the caveat had come from President Barack Obama, who had to miss the meetings — an unnecessary diplomatic delay for the US pivot to Asia.

In his first summit appearance, Li was highly impressive and animated — a departure from previous Chinese leaders — in delivering China's robust messages of a stronger commitment to Asean. Beaming with confidence and smiling, Li outlined China's new and comprehensive engagement package — the so-called two principles and seven proposals, much to the chagrin of other leaders.

China was well prepared for the summit. Only Li's statements in open and closed-door sessions were available immediately to journalists at the media centre, while others were absent.

In retrospect, Brunei has been trying hard to encourage further regulatory reform and governance to ensure full implementation of the Asean Economic Community. The chair found it was not an easy task, with each member still having more to do on behind-border measures. Mid-way into the chairmanship, Brunei shifted focus to the ASCC evaluation to remind Asean of this important but much neglected community. Brunei decided the report should be open to the public. That explained why the write-up was carefully crafted not to hurt Asean members, despite their lacklustre implementations.

Ironically, Brunei, with its small base of young people, could turn into a giant in pushing Asean in youth development. Youth peace corps volunteers and entrepreneur programmes might be Brunei's legacy.

Finally, the "generally positive" benchmark sadly turned upside down to "generally negative" in regard to media relations and information dissemination. Unlike the first summit in April, journalists were heavily restricted after what happened in Bali early last week when news people ambushed the Philippine leader with tough questions. Journalists here had no access to the concourse linking the conference and media rooms — the primary rendezvous area for journalists to rub shoulders with their delegates and sources.

And the way press releases were handled also needed improving. A total of 55 such releases were issued, but most came late. Journalists, especially the Japanese, waited patiently after the EAS meeting for the chairman's statement, which came at 2am on October 11 — about 14 hours later.


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