By Gregory Poling
Most observers could be forgiven for seeing the April 26–27 ASEAN Summit in Malaysia as another in a long series of head-of-state talk shops by the grouping. It did not issue any groundbreaking new declarations on the organization’s direction. The bloc did not come out swinging at China, nor did it unveil many big “deliverables” as U.S. observers expect to see from international forums. But a more nuanced reading of the summit suggests that it did set the stage for important developments down the road.
The lion’s share of attention given to the summit understandably focused on the South China Sea, and in particular whether ASEAN leaders would heed Philippine president Benigno Aquino’s call for a robust, united front against the unprecedented challenge of China’s reclamation work in the Spratly Islands. An advanced copy of the chairman’s statement expected to be issued by Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak after the summit leaked on April 16. It made no direct mention of recent developments in the South China Sea and merely echoed ASEAN’s usual vague statement of concern over the disputes and call for peaceful settlement.
The final statement issued on April 28 was considerably revised. It said the ASEAN heads of state “share the serious concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamation being undertaken in the South China Sea, which has eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the South China Sea.” There is no way to read that other than as an indictment of Beijing, even if China is not mentioned by name. And that is clearly how China’s foreign ministry read the statement, resulting in a testy briefing the following day in which spokesman Hong Lei lashed out at purported reclamation in the Spratlys by the Philippines, Vietnam, and other claimant nations.
It is dangerous to read too much into the diplomatic tea leaves. But Malaysia has clearly realized as this year’s ASEAN chair that it cannot be entirely passive on the South China Sea issue. And the willingness of the 10 heads of state to sign off on such a strong (by ASEAN standards) statement regarding the reclamation work suggests that it has them concerned as much as, if not more than, the standoff last May over the placement of a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam. That resulted in the first-ever standalone statement by the ASEAN foreign ministers on the South China Sea.
Interestingly, this year’s chairman’s statement says the ASEAN foreign ministers have been instructed to “urgently address this matter constructively including under the various ASEAN frameworks.” They can be expected to use the August ASEAN Ministerial Meeting and ASEAN Regional Forum, which includes the foreign ministers of 16 other Asia Pacific countries and the European Union, to raise the issue with more candor than their heads of state.
It is also telling that the laundry list of concerns in the chairman’s statement regarding the South China Sea includes freedom of over-flight, which suggests a growing worry that China’s reclamation work could lead to Beijing’s declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea, as it did a year and a half ago in the East China Sea.
Despite the understandable press coverage, the South China Sea was not the only issue discussed at the ASEAN Summit. In addition to the usual updates on progress on the three pillars of the ASEAN Community, especially the ASEAN Economic Community set to come into effect on December 31, the leaders adopted three declarations that point to new priorities for the organization.
The first, the Kuala Lumpur Declaration on a People-Oriented, People-Centered ASEAN, echoes the theme Malaysia selected for its 2015 chairmanship. In broadest strokes, it seems a recognition that ASEAN remains an institution of the elites and that the average Southeast Asian citizen does not feel any real connection to ASEAN as a community. Creating a sense of investment in ASEAN among average citizens will be critical for creating a more effective bloc like the European Union. Whether Malaysia’s focus on youth, entrepreneurs, and other targeted groups will bear fruit will have to be seen, but it is important that ASEAN might finally be committed to creating a real sense of community.
The other two declarations, on the “Global Movement of Moderates” and on promoting disaster and climate change resilience, address more immediate concerns for ASEAN leaders. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has led to increasing concerns about radicalization in Southeast Asian states and the danger of returning jihadists taking up arms in the region. This is of particular concern for Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The effort to combat radicalization and promote religious and political moderation on a regional scale could prove important in confronting those dangers.
With a landmark UN climate change summit in Paris at the end of the year, 2015 will prove a watershed in the fight to combat climate change. The Philippines, previously a vocal opponent of emissions cuts for developing states, has had a dramatic change of heart in light of the devastation inflicted on the country by 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan and other extreme weather events, which are growing more frequent and severe due to climate change. It is long overdue that ASEAN as a group recognize Southeast Asia’s unique vulnerability to climate change and engage in collective efforts to build more resilient communities and mitigate its worst effects.
The ASEAN Summit was hardly a landmark moment for the group, and by Western standards still seems a talk shop. But it may well have planted seeds for important efforts by the organization later this year and beyond.
Mr. Gregory B. Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.