Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong makes a speech during the 6th Asean-US Summit in Singapore on November 15, 2018. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Anton Raharjo
Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong makes a speech during the 6th Asean-US Summit in Singapore on November 15, 2018. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency/Anton Raharjo

When Singapore took the reins last year of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (Asean) rotating leadership, the regional grouping’s credibility and relevance was at stake.

Amid rising geopolitical tensions, maritime disputes in the South China Sea and abuses in Myanmar against the Rohingya Muslim minority that the United Nations has said constitute crimes against humanity, consensus has been elusive on issues that are dividing the region.

One year on, despite progress in enhancing certain areas of cooperation, the question of how the 10-member grouping intends to foster greater unity, coherence and relevance is no less pertinent now than when the city-state formally took over the revolving chair from the Philippines last November.

The grouping’s member states – along with top officials from China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States – convened in Singapore this week for the 33rd Asean Summit, where Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave perhaps his most frank assessment to date of US policy and the fractured state of multilateral cooperation.

“Countries, including major powers, are resorting to unilateral actions and bilateral deals, and even explicitly repudiating multilateral approaches and institutions,” the Singaporean premier said. “It is unclear if the world will settle into new rules and norms of international engagement, or whether the international order will break up into rival blocs.”

Asean’s chair is tasked with setting the agenda for the year’s multilateral engagements, facilitating official meetings, tabling new initiatives and serving as group spokesperson. The closing ceremony of the summit saw Singapore hand over Asean’s chairmanship to Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, whose country will lead the grouping in 2019.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (C), Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha at the ASEAN-China summit of the 33rd ASEAN summit in Singapore, November 14, 2018. (Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha 

As Asean’s leader, Singapore presided over a period marked by a US-led pushback against multilateralism and trade tensions between America and China that saw the world’s two largest economies impose tit-for-tat tariffs, a move that has rattled supply chains with expectations of cooling growth across Southeast Asia.

Trade integration, rather than conflict resolution, was prioritized during the city-state’s stewardship of the grouping, bringing Asean in sync with a Chinese leadership that has taken the lead in extolling the virtues of free trade and openness at the expense of an American president who favors protectionism as a means to extract trade concessions.

As such, Washington has been left without a seat at the table as regional governments push to finalize the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade pact between Asean, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand that will encompass more than half of the world’s population if and when it is concluded.

Hopes were high that RCEP, negotiated since 2013, would be concluded within this year. Asean economic ministers, however, failed to reach an agreement regarding issues such as lowering tariffs during this week’s summit in Singapore. Some believe the deal could be bogged down by politics with Australia, Indonesia, India and Thailand scheduled to hold polls in 2019.

Elsewhere, the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) is expected to enter into force on December 30, with Vietnam being the latest nation to ratify the pact. An earlier version of the agreement was thrown into limbo when US President Donald Trump pulled out of the agreement during 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

Singapore focused its Asean chairmanship on themes of resilience and innovation, encompassing the promotion of free trade agreements (FTAs) as well as pacts related to e-commerce and new digital technologies, including a flagship “smart cities” urban planning concept aimed at improving access to public services across 26 Asean pilot cities.

Determining where the public relations end and the substantive outcomes begin, however, is an altogether different matter. Asean, which has traditionally worked by achieving consensus, has come no closer to reaching a purposeful outcome regarding the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, whose military stands accused of heinous rights abuses.

Singapore had previously called for the repatriation of displaced persons to Myanmar and reconciliation among communities, but earlier this year the city-state’s stance hardened somewhat. Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan urged Naypyidaw to give a full mandate to a commission of inquiry and hold those found responsible to account.

Signs of progress were seen in other areas. China and Asean announced in June that both sides had agreed upon a draft document to serve as a basis for further negotiations for a code of conduct that would outline the norms, rules and responsibilities that parties to territorial disputes in the South China Sea would be obligated to uphold.

The draft document came 16 years after a code of conduct was originally mandated in 2002 and since has seen the contested region’s dynamics dramatically shift in Beijing’s favor after years of reclamation and military fortification of islands it claims. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently said Beijing aims to complete negotiations on a code of conduct within three years.

Warships and fighter jets of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea, April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters

“Under Singapore’s watch, Asean has strengthened and continued to juggle the different interests of all parties within the grouping while continuing to encourage international businesses to invest in the region,” says Felix Tan, an associate Lecturer with SIM Global Education in Singapore, who emphasized the organization’s defense of multilateralism.

“Disputes in the South China Sea and the Myanmar refugee crisis might have dented Asean’s cohesiveness and impacted the stability of the region, but Singapore handled it by encouraging Asean to cooperate and work in tandem within areas where other Asean countries can contribute significantly, such as diplomatic exchanges and dialogues.”

“During Singapore’s chairmanship, Asean has managed to temper the demands of the great powers such as China and the US,” said Tan, adding that Asean leaders are mindful of how great powers from outside the region would be able to manipulate the grouping if allowed to take center stage and exert “an overwhelming influence.”

Mark Valencia, an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China, takes a dimmer view: “On Singapore’s watch, the South China Sea became an increasing focus of rivalry for dominance between China and the US,” he told Asia Times, adding that the grouping has become less central to regional security as a result.

“Asean was and is unable to mitigate this struggle and its deleterious effect on Asean unity and centrality in regional security,” he said. “This is not the fault or lack of effort on the part of [Foreign Minister] Balakrishnan and Singapore. Asean is caught up in a seminal great power contest and there is little that it can do to extricate itself or mitigate its effects.”

Valencia spoke favorably of a recent Asean agreement to introduce guidelines for managing unexpected encounters between military aircraft in the maritime region, but lamented that the guidelines would do little to prevent “intentional unfriendly encounters as we have seen in the continuing incidents between China and the US.”

Consensus between China and Asean on a draft document setting of terms of reference for future talks “reflects how little progress has been made” on the issue said Valencia, who highlighted outstanding issues such as the absence of a dispute settlement procedure.

“The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better,” he said.