Chinese Premier Li Keqiang laughs with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a signing ceremony at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, April 8, 2018. Picture: Parker Song/Pool via Reuters
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang laughs with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a signing ceremony at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, April 8, 2018. Picture: Parker Song/Pool

Singapore’s anticipated chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) opened on the weekend with a summit that reaffirmed the city-state’s vision of a “rules-based” regional order but offered a limited view on pressing security matter.

The gathering – attended by leaders from all ten of the bloc’s member states – put the promotion of open and free trade rather than boiling territorial disputes and militarization of the South China Sea at the center of its agenda.

Some analysts thought Singapore, a traditionally staunch US ally that until recently had lukewarm relations with China, might leverage its chairmanship to put more pressure on Beijing’s perceived expansionist ambitions in the hotly contested maritime area.

But China’s recent rapprochement with key claimant states like the Philippines as well as warming ties with Singapore may have played a role in setting Asean’s tone, analysts suggest.

Earlier this month in China, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Chinese President Xi Jinping stood shoulder to shoulder in support in favor of global free trade in a counter to US President Donald Trump administration’s imposition of tariffs on major Asian nations’ exports.

In his April 10 speech at the Boao Forum held in Hainan China, Singapore’s leader called on countries across the region to draw on their “economic dynamism” and to remain “open and connected to one another” amid the rising global tide of protectionism.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hosts an Asean working dinner for regional leaders in Singapore April 27, 2018. Photo: ASEAN2018 Organizing Committee/Handout via Reuters

In a clear rebuff of Washington’s strident unfair trade rhetoric against Beijing, Lee openly praised China’s “further steps in financial sector reforms, in opening up foreign investment rules, in protecting intellectual property and increasing automobile imports.”

Singapore’s strong advocacy against protectionism was also reflected in Asean’s joint statement, where the ten foreign ministers collectively said they are “deeply concerned over the rising tide of protectionism and anti-globalization sentiments” across the world but particularly in the West.

The assembled leaders reiterated Asean’s “continued support for the multilateral trading system” and reaffirmed their commitment to uphold an “open regionalism principle while maintaining Asean centrality.”

More specifically, the Southeast Asian leaders “encouraged the swift conclusion” of the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations, a free trade pact involving 16 nations from across the Asia-Pacific region that symbolically excludes the US.

They called for the “early implementation” of the Asean-Hong Kong-China Free Trade and Investment Agreements, which were signed last in Manila while the Philippines served as the regional bloc’s rotating chairman. The Philippines’ chairmanship was also widely seen as pro-Beijing in its steering of the regional bloc.

Asean leaders also called on regional states to maintain the momentum behind existing free trade agreements between Asean and other major dialogue partners, particularly China. Certain Asean members are signatories of the recently enacted Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement Trump withdrew the US from in his first week in office.

US President Donald Trump holds up an executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January 2017. Photo: AFP/Saul Loeb

Intent on strengthening Asean’s institutional coherence, Singapore aimed to buttress existing initiatives such as the Initiative of Asean Integration (IAI) Task Force that aims to ensure growing convergence of member states’ institutional preparedness and development for economic convergence.

The regional body aspires rhetorically to establish a common market, with freedom of labor and capital movements across its borders within a decade.

Singapore has been a major supporter of various initiatives to bridge developmental and institutional gaps among the bloc’s developed and less developed member states.

Cognizant of the impact of increased automation and technological advancement across various economic sectors, Singapore is also leveraging its rotating leadership to incorporate e-commerce and digital trade into broader regional discussions on economic integration and free trade.

The region is moving towards the adoption of an Asean Agreement on Electronic Commerce, a broader Asean Digital Integration Framework and an Asean Innovation Network to “strengthen linkages between innovation ecosystems to spark new collaborations and solutions” across the region.

While bold and innovative on trade matters, Asean leaders struck a significantly more tepid tone on major regional security concerns, particularly in regard to the South China Sea disputes and Myanmar’s destabilizing Rohingya refugee crisis.

Rohingya refugees stretch their hands to receive aid in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 14, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

On Myanmar, Asean warmly welcomed the government’s supposed humanitarian relief programs in its western Rakhine state, the epicenter of what the United Nations and US have said is a military campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against its Rohingya minority.

Over 700,000 refugees have fled into neighboring Bangladesh since the Myanmar military launched abusive “clearance” operations in Rakhine beginning last August.

While the West has widely condemned Naypyitaw’s actions, Asean expressed its “support for the Myanmar government in its efforts to bring peace, stability, the rule of law, to promote harmony and reconciliation among the various communities, as well as to ensure sustainable and equitable development in Rakhine state.”

That conciliatory line is similar in tone and language to the one China has taken on the humanitarian crisis.

On the South China Sea, Asean also fell short of criticizing China’s reclamation activities and increasingly large-scale deployment of military assets to contested islands under its control.

An aerial view of China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning followed by destroyers and frigates during an exercise in the South China Sea, April 2018. Photo: AFP

The grouping said simply it had “discussed the matters relating to the South China Sea” while taking “note of the concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamations and activities” in the area. Vietnam is known to be the most vocal critic of China’s actions among Asean’s members.

All in all, Asean sounded upbeat and conciliatory notes towards China on the disputes. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has even called in recent days for a resource-sharing agreement with China in areas of the South China Sea his country contests with Beijing.

Over the weekend the bloc welcomed the establishment of new hotlines between the foreign ministries of China and Southeast Asian claimant states, as well as the operationalization of a Joint Statement on the Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.

Asean leaders also said they were “encouraged by the official commencement of the substantive negotiations” towards the early conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea.

Despite that optimistic message, there is still no clear timeline for finalizing the CoC or any announcements of its potential details or provisions after nearly two decades of largely ineffectual talks.

Under Singapore’s leadership, Asean seems content to serve as facilitator and advocate for free trade issues while steering clear of prickly security issues. That will serve China’s interests but also put into question the bloc’s self-professed “centrality” in maintaining regional peace and stability.

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