Trade and South China Sea likely issues on agenda at ASEAN Summit: Experts

Trade and South China Sea likely issues on agenda at ASEAN Summit: Experts

Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are set to meet in Manila for the ASEAN Summit later this week. Experts say trade and the South China Sea dispute - both of which are issues that Singapore has a keen interest in - are likely to take centre stage.

SINGAPORE: Leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are set to meet in Manila for the ASEAN Summit later this week.

Experts have said trade and the South China Sea dispute - both of which are issues that Singapore has a keen interest in - are likely to take centre stage.

SOUTH CHINA SEA CODE OF CONDUCT

Since 2010, China and ASEAN have been discussing a set of rules to govern behaviour and avoid conflict in the disputed waters.

The goal now is to complete a framework for the code of conduct in the South China Sea by June.

The territory is claimed by China, Taiwan and several ASEAN states.

While China has reportedly reclaimed more than 3,200 acres of land in the disputed waters, one expert said the code of conduct still serves a purpose.

“We should still see the code of conduct as a useful mechanism for ASEAN to engage China on the South China Sea, because China's tactic is to engage bilaterally,” said Ms Lee Chen Chen, director of policy programmes at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

“But ASEAN, in using the COC (code of conduct), will push for China to negotiate on the issues pertaining to the South China Sea with ASEAN as a regional bloc, and I think that puts ASEAN in a stronger negotiating position vis-a-vis China."

While Singapore may be a non-claimant state, Ms Lee noted that it also has a stake.

“Singapore's economy basically relies on freedom of navigation in the Straits of Malacca and the waters around Singapore, and we are definitely a strong advocate of the rule of law by international standards,” she said.

“So it is in Singapore's every interest to push for and try to see that China is abiding by international law and rule of law."

asean summit security
Philippine policemen from the anti-riot unit guard the road leading to the venue of the ASEAN Summit in Manila, ahead of the meeting on Apr 28 and 29. (Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe)

REGIONAL COMPREHENSIVE ECONOMIC PARTNERSHIP

Another issue likely to take centre stage is the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The trade pact was mooted by ASEAN about five years ago and has since gone through 17 rounds of negotiations.

This year's ASEAN chair Philippines has said that it hopes a conclusion can be reached by the end of the year.

But one expert said this is unlikely as negotiations are highly complex.

All 10 ASEAN states and other countries like China, India, Japan and Australia are involved.

“It's very difficult to get it passed because it requires an agreement between China and India - the two biggest economies in the region," noted Mr James Crabtree, a visiting senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

"China has a big manufacturing economy, India has a big services economy, and so getting the two of them to agree and then getting them to agree with all of the other Asian countries involved is just very difficult," he said.

“People thought when the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - the other big trade agreement led by America - appeared to be dead, it would put extra wind in the sails of this other agreement."

"Now it appears that the TPP may have a new lease of life," he added, noting that the fact that other TPP countries - including Japan, Australia and Singapore - are debating on going ahead with the TPP without the United States makes it less likely that the RCEP pact will happen.

Still, Mr Crabtree noted that there could be some good outcomes for Singapore.

"Singapore tries to portray itself as an honest broker in these situations,” he said. “So if the ASEAN Summit emerges with no harsh words over the South China Sea and some warm words on trade, that would be seen as a positive."

This year also marks ASEAN's 50th anniversary and experts suggest the organisation could also focus on being more people-centred, so as to build a more integrated community.

Source: CNA/nc

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