Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Top Ten Takeaways from the ASEAN Summit

Now that the November 2012 ASEAN Summit and its related meetings are over (as well as the “American” season in Asia, with President Obama returning to the US for Thanksgiving), it is time for a quick assessment of the outcomes (I’ll have more detailed analysis as documents are released). In the style of US talk show host David Letterman, here are the top ten outcomes of the ASEAN Summit (although unlike Letterman, I won’t go in reverse order):

1. Brunei is now ASEAN Chair.  Which of course means that Cambodia is no longer ASEAN Chair. A year of drama mainly driven by Cambodia’s moves in support of China has ended.  Of course, for all the buzz about Cambodia’s turn as ASEAN Chair, here is a quick reminder that it could have been a lot worse: imagine what the ASEAN Summit would have been like if we still had troops massed at Preah Vihear?  Anyway, in all likelihood we will get to revisit all of these issues when Cambodia (and Hun Sen) becomes ASEAN Chair once again in 2022.

2. ASEAN did not implode.  Despite last minute moments of drama with the final statement, fears arising from the July 2012 ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting that the ASEAN Summit would collapse never really materialized.  Hun Sen stayed true to form and, for the most part, balanced his positions well.  The differences over the South China Sea were bandaged over for now. The question is how long before the next incident that pulls off the bandage?

3. Most US Burma sanctions are now ended.  Most of the major US Burma sanctions against Myanmar have now ended, with the waiver of the US import ban. President Obama even said the word “Myanmar.”  With the additional staff in the US embassy in Yangon, perhaps the sanctions blacklist of Specially Designated Nationals can be trimmed back.

4. Le Luong Minh will take over as ASEAN Secretary General.  Actually, this has been known for months, but the official endorsement was delayed by the July 2012 ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting imbroglio.  Many thanks to ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan and good luck to Le Luong Minh!

5. The RCEP talks were launched.  The grand rationalization of ASEAN’s FTAs with China, India, Japan, Korea and Australia-New Zealand begins.  I don’t expect rapid progress or a broad scope of work, but the effort to harmonize important topics such as rules of origin and investment protections is a positive development.

6. Thailand joined the TPP talks.  I commented on this last week, but it still remains a significant development that a major ASEAN-6 country joined the TPP talks. The key will be whether, unlike the previous US-Thailand FTA talks, the parties can see this through to the end.

7. The ASEAN Agreement on the Movement of Natural Persons was signed.  This will help companies pursuing an ASEAN-wide policy in production and sales. See more here.

8. The US-ASEAN Expanded Economic Engagement initiative started up.  This is not the half-way house to TPP membership for those ASEAN countries not ready to join in the talks, but it does go some ways to showing that the US is committed to non-security ties with regional bloc. And, if Thailand is willing join the TPP, who is to say that Indonesia won’t join after its elections or that the Philippines will conclude that joining the TPP will help improve ties with the US beyond security matters?

9. The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration was signed.  I don’t really cover this issue, but I think the proper way to approach this development is to see this as a work-in-progress.   The impact, if any, of the declaration will be determined by how ASEAN and its citizens will apply the declaration's principles.

10. ASEAN Economic Community delayed by a year to December 31, 2015. This was not really news, and was predictable once it was announced that Malaysia would be ASEAN Chair in 2015.  Having an experienced team at the helm will greatly benefit the AEC.  Now it’s time to get to work!

With that, I wish everyone a Happy American Thanksgiving!  Enjoy your turkey!