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Philippines to Singapore: Passing the baton of ASEAN chairmanship and challenges of regional cooperation

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Jumel G. Estrañero |

ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] has a new chairman after Philippines’s yearlong leadership – Singapore. ASEAN is getting there with systemic challenges underneath but it will definitely thrive on, despite the emerging security dilemma in the region. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on November 14th, on the cusp of Singapore leading the group that “ASEAN is [a] vehicle to have our voice heard on the world stage and to be able to manage our own issues amongst ourselves, and to cooperate to improve the lives of the people in Southeast Asia”.

The ceremonial rite to pass the baton to another state has been the long-term engagement among nations to continue what has been started despite their differences. That is why the challenge and the long overdue obstacle here is the integration phase itself since the diversity of ideology has not been resolved between and amongst members. 

The only challenge for ASEAN is to protect its foothold in the Asia Pacific region’s security as one reliable ally and regional bloc having to not only rely on the US alone but by developing Quadrilateral Defense states.

What it needs to do is to find innovative ways to manage and make use of digital technologies, and equip ASEAN citizens with skills and capabilities. The goal is to remain a central and dynamic driving force in the region that can deal with challenges and opportunities. What we can expect from the new chairmanship is that Singapore will also continue to build relations with ASEAN’s external partners, as was its original intent.

Read more: Philippines and US’s first time meeting: Reality and expectations

If it can make ASEAN more effective and strengthen cooperation with its neighbors, this will benefit the man on the street as emphasized by the Singapore premiere. Singapore is a technocratic state. For Singapore being at the helm of ASEAN, it means a more stable world to live in, a safer South-east Asia in which we can operate, a more prosperous region in which we can grow our economy, expand our markets and seize opportunities that arise.

In connection therewith, trade was featured prominently, as leaders spoke of the need to send a signal of commitment to have free trade and open markets. They acknowledged the hurdles in the way of concluding talks on the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Singapore will definitely take advantage of this; doing all it can to push negotiations forward. And yes, a market economy is what we can expect to be developed by them via MSMEs [Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises].

What is more compelling to be under development is that ASEAN and China agreed to start talks on the code, both sides said at the ASEAN-China Summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Monday, November 13th. These talks will begin early next year, PM Lee told Singapore. As we can recall, Southeast Asian foreign ministers and China adopted the negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea in August, and ASEAN said in its draft statement on November 13th that it was looking forward to the “early conclusion” of the code. 

Lee Hsien Loong said on November 14th, on the cusp of Singapore leading the group that “ASEAN is a vehicle to have our voice heard on the world stage and to be able to manage our own issues amongst ourselves”

The framework seeks to advance the 2002 declaration and ASEAN and China have hailed its adoption as progress. Meanwhile, we can see this as a tactic by China to buy time and consolidate its power, and international security experts don’t see the code emerging soon.

Moreover, what is also interesting here is that ASEAN leaders held their first summit with United States President Donald Trump. To challenge ASEAN, US President Donald Trump is just a few days into his first trip to Asia but is already making waves with his administration’s wide use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ on what is essentially an Asia-Pacific trip.

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The ‘Indo-Pacific’ probably spells another way of looking at Asia and The Pacific; not merely at APEC [Asia Pacific Economic Corporation] which leaves off a significant geographical area and population including India and China which is not going to get away even among the ASEAN grouping. Thus, the only challenge for ASEAN is to protect its foothold in the Asia Pacific region’s security as one reliable ally and regional bloc having to not only rely on the US alone but by developing Quadrilateral Defense states.

ASEAN also aims to revive a four-way alliance with US, Japan, Australia, and India to deal with a rising China.In a nutshell, since Singapore is a neutral state and tends to play well in diplomacy, it will really push through equi-balancing act when it is stressed out that ASEAN values our relations with these two powers, and these two powers are also paying attention to their relationship with ASEAN. On one hand, Singapore highlights the important matters to ASEAN and none of it is human rights. 

The framework seeks to advance the 2002 declaration and ASEAN and China have hailed its adoption as progress.

Albeit under a different name Singapore identified drug trafficking under transnational crimes as another matter of interest. Lastly, we are confident that Philippines was able to administer as standing chairman of ASEAN since last year. In fact, for Philippines’s successful chairmanship, a major highlight was a framework for the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

Read more: Philippines: trapped between rising China & unassertive US in the Far…

The code should contain a clause that says sovereignty issues are not part of the code but it is agreed that within 10 years sovereignty and territory issue shall be determined by the United Nations or by an agreement among all claimants and it will be accepted by losing parties. So as the code will not be treated as a waiver of sovereign rights or estoppels. This is one legacy amongst states, which remains to be challenged since China is also another party to negotiate on the regional level.

Jumel Gabilan Estrañero is a defense analyst/researcher in the Philippine government while teaching political science, geopolitics, international negotiation, multilateral diplomacy, political economy & geography, international trade, practice and policies, and other social sciences. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.


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