This has been an important year for ASEAN. The bloc has flourished economically, experiencing strong growth, with future annual GDP growth values projected to average 5.4% to 2018. Yet ASEAN has been tested by significant instability. The most severe of these tests was the CNOOC oil rig in Vietnam's EEZ, which led to a heated dispute. But there has also been a coup in Thailand and political and religiously motivated violence in Myanmar, Cambodia and the Philippines.
Through it all, ASEAN has remained silent, leading many commentators to call it increasingly defunct in the emerging power structure of the wider Indo-Pacific region. Instead, it is more likely an indication of the Asian brand of quiet diplomacy than complete impotence.
Last weekend, foreign ministers from Southeast Asia and the wider region converged on Naypyidaw, Myanmar, for the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting (AMM) and the ASEAN Regional Forum. The AMM is generally a lacklustre affair where ASEAN's policy of non-interference trumps any bold public statements. Instead, it is the closed-door diplomacy (or what Malaysia's Najib calls 'quiet diplomacy') that often resonates loudest. Here are a few of the outcomes:
- ASEAN released an insipid joint communiqué. Among other things, it highlighted the goals of reaching two-way ASEAN-China trade volumes of US$500 million by 2015 and US$1 trillion by 2020. Unsurprisingly, and despite calls by Vietnam and the Philippines, the communique did not criticise China's assertive actions in the South China Sea this year. But Vietnam was successful in pushing for the inclusion of the word 'seriously' in the communiqué:
We remained seriously concerned over recent developments which had increased tensions in the South China Sea and reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, stability, maritime security as well as freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea.
- The 'Triple Action Plan' to manage tensions in the South China Sea was introduced by the Philippines. Its content was partly drawn from a US proposal for a moratorium on provocative action in the South China Sea. The Philippines' Foreign Secretary stated later that the TAP had not encountered objections' by ASEAN members. 'The fact that there were no objections, I take that to mean that ASEAN was fully supportive', he said. ASEAN states officially 'noted' its inclusion in the communiqué but didn't press its adoption.
- Despite the impact on Malaysia, ASEAN said it would not collectively condemn Russia over the MH17 incident. Many member states (notably Vietnam) have strong ties with Moscow. As Myanmar's newly appointed Minister of Information Ye Htut stated: 'The ASEAN Regional Forum is not to force any other country. It's about mutual respect and dialogue.' In the joint communique there was however condemnation for ISIS, reference to the situations in Syria and Gaza, and praise for elections in Afghanistan.
- Meanwhile, at the ASEAN Regional Forum, Australia's Foreign Minister announced further cooperation between Canberra and ASEAN in education. This will be spearheaded by the extension of the New Colombo Plan, a program for student exchanges between ASEAN and Australia, to which the Australian Government is dedicating A$100 million over five years.
Photo by ASEAN.