Friday, December 28, 2012

ASEAN in 2013: New Leadership, Same Challenges

The coming year presents great challenges and opportunities for ASEAN.  In some ways, the external environment for ASEAN has stabilized, with most of ASEAN’s major trading partners having undergone leadership transition periods or elections (e.g., China, Japan, Korea and the United States).  Australia and India will have elections in the near future, but in neither case should a change in government have major effects on the region.

We can look forward to a drama-free year coming from Brunei as ASEAN Chair.  This may be bad for headline writers, but it will be good for the ASEAN institutions.  Brunei has a small, well-run and professional bureaucratic corps supported by the Sultan’s resources and long experience in the region.  The ASEAN Deputy-Secretary General for the AEC, Dr. Lim Hong Hin, is also from Brunei and will be able to work closely with the ASEAN Chair during what promises to be a critical year in the run-up to 2015. 

An immediate example of Brunei’s experienced and steady hand was its decision not to hold the informal ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting next month.   This eliminates the potential for publicly rehashing the disputes that arose from the July 2012 ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting and the November 2012 ASEAN Summit in Cambodia.  The Senior Officials Meeting will still be held, but in private, giving ASEAN leaders sufficient time to prepare for the formal meetings and ASEAN Summits to be held later in the year. 

A drama-free year would be good for the ASEAN institutions as well.  Le Luong Minh will start his term as ASEAN Secretary General and will benefit from having Brunei as ASEAN Chair.  If Brunei could also pursue the administrative reforms advocated by Dr. Surin Pitsuwan for the ASEAN institutions that would be even better.  In particular, Brunei should revive its proposed surcharge on air travel that would generate funds for the ASEAN institutions.  This would both provide much-needed funds for the ASEAN institutions as well as promote greater awareness of ASEAN.

There will be challenges to ASEAN, of course. The International Court of Justice will issue another ruling in the Preah Vihear case.  Cambodia and Thailand currently have good relations, but would Cambodia react badly to an adverse ruling, particularly since it is no longer ASEAN Chair?  How would Thailand react to an adverse ruling?  The South China Sea dispute continues to rumble on, with no sign of immediate resolution in sight.  The ongoing global economic crisis threatens ASEAN prosperity.    The EU-Singapore FTA and ASEAN-India FTA services and investment agreements need finalization of the text, and the EU-Malaysia FTA talks need to reach completion soon before Malaysian goods get subjected to higher EU duty rates in 2014.  ASEAN and its trading partners will start the RCEP talks.  Indonesia and Malaysia both hurtle into election seasons, while Myanmar rushes to make its reforms irreversible before its own elections in 2015.  Economic development, the environment, improving human resources, and other issues may also come into play next year.

The next year will require even “more ASEAN” than ever before.  This will strain ASEAN’s resources and institutions. Fortunately, the new leadership coming in, both at the ASEAN Chair and ASEAN Secretary General, look to be capable.  Hopefully fortune will be kind and give us the drama-free year that ASEAN needs.