This week Laos hosted the 2016 ASEAN Summits in Vientiane. The media will largely focus on the communiqué’s language on the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea. However, as a result of efforts to downplay the dispute, including those of the new Philippine government, the document was not likely to adopt a more active stance on the issue. This, coupled with the bete noire with the United States over Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s choice of words, will cause some observers to view the Vientiane summits as a relative disappointment. That would overlook some of the achievements announced in Laos in the Chair’s statement:
- ASEAN Summit -- The timing of the summits themselves reflects the inherent flexibility of ASEAN. Laos felt that it did not have the infrastructure to hold two major summits in 2016, as is required by the ASEAN Charter. Hence Laos was permitted to conduct both summits this week, but with the same participants. This complied with the letter of the law, but it also meant that ASEAN decisions were delayed several months until the Vientiane meetings (with an excellent explanation of why this is the case here). On the other hand, reducing the administrative burden of hosting the ASEAN Summit will help when smaller countries (e.g., Timor-Leste) serve as Chair, assuming that the 2016 Laos precedent is not followed too often.
- Timor-Leste – The Summit announced that all 3 feasibility studies on the accession have been completed, and that the application is now with the ASEAN Coordinating Council Working Group (ACCWG). That means that the ACCWG is the last formal hurdle before the start of the official accession process. The Summit also announced that Timor-Leste would participate in more ASEAN meetings for capacity building purposes. Last year Timor-Leste attended its first ASEAN meeting (on connectivity) but since then has not attended any other meetings (although it was invited to, but did not participate in, the ASEAN Law Ministers meeting last year).
- Development – The third work plan for the Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI III) was announced. The IAI serves as ASEAN’s wish list for projects in the less developed parts of the region, with funding to come from donor countries. The real question will be how the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will interact with existing donor countries and entities in implementing the IAI as well as the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity, which covers the entire region.
- Institutions – The communiqué states that ASEAN has addressed the recommendations of the High Level Task Force on Strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat and Reviewing the ASEAN Organs, noting that most of them are “perpetual” in nature and will require continuing implementation.
Now the Chair passes to the Philippines, a founding member of ASEAN. In addition to the usual responsibilities of the Chair, the Philippines also will supervise the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of ASEAN as well as the selection of the next ASEAN Secretary General (who will come from Brunei as per the national rotation).