Thursday, December 5, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Fearing Myanmar as 2014 ASEAN Chair

Yesterday I attended a symposium on Myanmar as 2014 ASEAN Chair held by the ASEAN Studies Center at American University, Washington DC.  The symposium was conducted under Chatham House rules so I can’t discuss the details of the presentations and discussion.  Suffice it to say that the focus was more on Myanmar and less on the ASEAN institutions. 

Furthermore, nothing I heard today has significantly changed my view on Myanmar as ASEAN Chair, which I wrote about earlier this year here.  I think the Myanmar government has invested sufficient time and resources in human and physical infrastructure, and all parties in the country have committed to showing Myanmar’s political reforms to the outside world during its term as ASEAN Chair.   All of this means that the ASEAN meetings to be held in 2014 will probably go off without a hitch, at least on the logical side of things.

Substantively, as I wrote earlier this year, the relative lack of expertise among most of the Myanmar government in ASEAN matters means that the technical aspects of the ASEAN Economic Community will be left to the ASEAN Secretariat.   What cannot be resolved at the technical level, e.g., any political-security matters such as the South China Sea and more critical matters on the AEC, will most likely be back-stopped by the past and future ASEAN Chairs, Brunei and Malaysia. Both countries are well-experienced and capable, as evidenced by Brunei’s drama-free 2013 as ASEAN Chair.  Under this “troika” approach, any difficult matters will probably be left to Malaysia as 2015 ASEAN Chair to resolve (this is why it was so important to have Laos delay its stint as ASEAN Chair from 2015 to 2016, and why perhaps it would have been good to have had Indonesia and Brunei shadowing Cambodia in 2012).   

In any event, it seems that having Myanmar as ASEAN Chair in 2014 will also be drama-free, barring any “black swan” events.  Let’s hope it works out that way.