There are high expectations for the 26th ASEAN Summit, which began yesterday and continues today in Kuala Lumpur. As this year's chair, Malaysia wants to assert itself as a leader in the region.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib is under fire at home, with powerful former PM Mahathir launching a roadshow calling for Najib's resignation. Najib has struggled to assuage strong conservative voices in the country (earlier this year one Malaysian state introduced hudud law), and is reeling from the unpopular introduction of a GST and a scandal in a debt-laden state fund. Last week at the Invest Malaysia conference Najib asserted his country's strong credentials as a key emerging market and a growing centre for sharia finance and banking. It is a card he is playing hard.
So with the host yearning for headline success there's hope that this Summit could yield strong results. Indeed, with the ASEAN Community entering into force at the end of the year, progress is needed on many fronts. The Community is comprised of economic, political-security, and socio-cultural pillars; progress is needed on all three to solidify the framework and harmonise positions.
Economic integration is arguably the toughest. The ASEAN bloc is composed of countries in differing stages of development (compare Singapore and Myanmar, for example), and corruption is endemic in most. Transparency International report this week rightly argued that ASEAN must tackle corruption.
The political-security pillar will also cause problems. Already there is talk of change to the bloc's non-interference policy, prompted by the increasing flow of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to other ASEAN states, particularly Thailand and Malaysia. The political-security pillar will also be challenged by territorial disputes between ASEAN states and China in the South China Sea. The Philippines last week said China's land reclamation in the South China Sea would be its top priority. On Sunday, before leaving for the Summit, President Aquino called for a consensus against China's land reclamation. Stronger rhetoric also came from ASEAN'sSecretary General, who said he 'can't accept' China's claim. This is contentious in a bloc that has strong economic ties with China; Cambodia has previously frustrated debates on the South China Sea within ASEAN.
When it comes to security issues, ISIS and other extremist threats are more of shared concern. Malaysia faces considerable problems, with several terror plots foiled, including one on the eve of this weekend's Summit. Kuala Lumpur will call for deepening of regional anti-terror cooperation.
The third, socio-cultural, pillar won't be easy either. It tries to build strong civil society across the ASEAN bloc through agreement on standardisation in areas such as education. ASEAN researchers have highlighted the importance of strengthening this pillar for a robust regional community.
This year's Summit should also feature discussion on ASEAN positions for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is meant to be complete by year's end. This FTA, which would be the world's largest, would include ASEAN, China, India, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand. Bringing China and India together in the same agreement is ambitious,but progress could smooth the road for Obama's TPP, and the EU is also keen to kick-start talks on a bloc-to-bloc FTA.
Despite the urgency for agreement and Malaysia's hope for big announcements, don't be surprised if this Summit passes by in the usual fashion, with a murmur.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.