Singapore’s uphill battle to maintain ASEAN unity

Singapore’s year as the ASEAN chair was marked by several milestones in the deepening of regional peace and security. Ahead of the 33rd ASEAN summit from 11–15 November 2018 that finished with Singapore’s official handing over of the chairmanship to Thailand, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan stated that ASEAN ‘actually achieved far more than I dared to anticipate’.

As a small nation, Singapore cannot impose its own ideas in regional or global settings. Instead it has the much trickier challenge of convincing other players, each with their own contexts and agendas, that strengthening the multilateral framework is in their best interests.

Tensions in the South China Sea, North Korea’s long-range missile tests and threats of a US–China trade war clouded the end of 2017 and presented a considerable challenge to ASEAN’s ongoing efforts to enhance regional cooperation. Despite the uphill battle, ASEAN and Singapore have played an integral part in ameliorating tensions on all three fronts.

Most recently, the 33rd ASEAN summit made an important contribution to the easing of regional tensions, with China agreeing to participate in talks on the long-proposed South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC). China offered a timeframe of three years for COC negotiations to be completed, which Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared as good progress.

The COC is perhaps the most important document related to the South China Sea disputes. With competing states attempting to apply different rules to claim legitimate sovereignty over the waters, fears have arisen that conflict could break out over misunderstandings or maritime encounters going wrong. The COC has been in gestation since the 2002 Declaration on Conduct in the South China Sea, but has barely progressed in the intervening years.

Claimants agreed upon a draft negotiating text for the COC earlier this year, ahead of the ASEAN–China Post Ministerial Meeting in August 2018, and now China has committed to signing the COC within three years. While this may sound like piecemeal progress, it is important to remember the headwinds facing the discussion: as a much larger power, there is little incentive for China to sign anything at all.

Keeping all parties on board while pushing consensus and norms forward — at a pace that divergent parties can accept — is something ASEAN does well. With Singapore at the helm, ASEAN has helped to keep the COC moving forward without alienating any of the negotiating parties. The significant difference in 2018 has been China’s explicit commitment to a rules-based order, a position it believes distinguishes itself from the United States.

Perhaps the most surprising event of 2018 was the US–North Korea peace talks in Singapore. As recently as 2017, both sides had issued threats against the other. North Korea continued to conduct missile tests, and the murder of Kim Jong-nam had soured its previously cordial relations with Malaysia. Singapore was one of the only plausible choices as a venue because of its high security, positive relations with both sides and an avowed impartiality.

While talks were initially cancelled just weeks before they were to be held, Singapore remained alert and ready for their resumption. The country’s experience in hosting summits put it in good stead for facilitating the dialogue, regardless of uncertainties on either side. The eventually successful engagement demonstrated the importance of Singapore as an open, inclusive and highly efficient state ready to contribute to international security.

ASEAN has paddled against global currents in 2018 to offer hope that multilateral initiatives will continue to bring states closer together on common objectives. But trade tensions between ASEAN’s two largest partners — the United States and China — continue to concern the region. Progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) remains a priority for ASEAN to offset this concern, though negotiations will continue into 2019 after RCEP partners failed to meet the November 2018 deadline.

The initial impetus for Southeast Asia to unite as a region was to buffer individual countries against the pull of larger powers, whose efforts to draw smaller states exclusively towards them are often driven by whimsical domestic agendas. As Prime Minister Lee noted during the opening ceremony of November’s ASEAN summit, ASEAN has raised its standing in the world and made itself greater than the sum of its parts by maintaining a collective voice on global issues.

Singapore’s chairmanship offered a strong restatement of ASEAN’s aims and bolstered the frameworks that were devised to address the myriad concerns of its members. Maintaining unity in the face of these external pressures is probably the best way for ASEAN states to maintain a strong position and secure the best outcomes for their continued growth.

 

Author: Joel Ng

* Joel Ng is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article originally appeared here on RSIS.

 

 

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10 Responses to “Singapore’s uphill battle to maintain ASEAN unity”

  • LIONS:

    One can have the authority to speak about UNITY only when one buys the IDEA/VALUE itself: else ,its plain hypocrisy.

    UNITY STARTS WITH ONE’S OWN FAMILY and if one cannot hold UNITY IN ONE’S OWN FAMILY,one loses his authority to speak about UNITY on an extended scale?

    i want the PM to ask: IS THERE UNITY IN SINGAPORE?
    are the ELITE$ ONE IN MIND,HEART AND SOUL WITH THE POOR N NEEDY like poor elderly and the jobless among us?

    what kind of PUBLIC POLICIES AND POLICY PRACTICES WE HAVE IN PLACE TO GIVE ASSISTANCE TO OUR VERY OWN MAEGINALISED OR,INSTEAD,OUR POLICIES ARE MARGINALISING THEM?

    PS: MANY NON-SGS(non true-blue) LIKE PERMANENT PRs especially those chinese MALAYSIAN PRs holding TOP PUBLIC SERVICE POSITIONS have CRAFTED OUR POLICIES TO SUIT THEIR OWN NEEDS,from PUBLIC HOUSING TO JOBS TO VARIOUS ASPECTS OF ORDINARY SGS’ LIVES like their CPF.

    WHEN WERE THOSE HDB GUIDELINES MADE AND BY WHOM?
    WHO PROPOSED THESE STOOPID THINGS TO THE MINISTER/S?

    WERENT THEY MALAYSIAN CHINESE PRs who took a long time to take our pink ic ONLY WHEN THEIR PROMOTION PROSPECTS had been put into question???

    where is the loyalty to sg in truth?
    where are their true CONCEENS AND CONSIDERATION S FOR TRUE BLUE SGS IN REALITY?

    SGS HAVE BEEN SCREWED BIG TIME BY SUCH KIND OF SELF-SERVING TOP LEVEL CIVIL SERVANTS WHO HAVE BEEN HOLDING SWAY ON PUBLIC MATTERS WITH MINISTERS JUST NODDING THEIR DAFT HEADS???

    ALL THESE AT THE EXPENSE OF MORE ORDINARY SGS ALL THESE YEARS,CAN ANY GOOD MINISTER DENY?

    TAKE SIMPLE EXAMPLE.

    WHY,MAY I ASK HAS A TRUE BLUE SS GOT TO WAIT A FEW YEARS AFTER SELLING THIS PRIVATE HOUSE IN ORDER TO BUY A HDB AND KEEP PAYING HIGH RENTALS TO THESE PRs who buy HDBs just to profit from it?isnt this ridiculous of PUBLIC POLICY???

    THEN AGAIN,WHY CAN THESE FTs/PRS OWN PRIVATE HOUSING WHEN THEY HAVE NOT SOLD THEIR HDBs which they bought because they supposedly have not enough funds to buy private and yet the govt doesnt bother???

    but when it comes to sgs who own private,many out of NO CHOICE then becos their ‘LOW’ SALARY HIT THE LOW CEILING back then???

    now that they are old and jobless,they cant even get a fair chance as a BONA FIDE CITIZEN TO BUY HDB FIRST HAND AFTER IMMEDIATELY SELLING THEIR PRIVATE HOUSING?

    THE HDB NEEDS TO REVISIT ITS ANTI-SGS RULES AND PLS PUT A TRUE BLUE SG ON THE JOB THIS TIME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  • All farts n falsehood claims:

    Fart worms work hard indeed. Pathetic. Singapore has long be depraved with professionals mutated to fart worms n on every opportunity trying to gain fart worm credits by plping to self claim of gratness of the lps om nothingness.
    Fart worms have no integrity, credibility n the shameless liars to the bones. Whatever they open their big mouth nothing but the farts they fed on r thrown as nothing but shits.

    无能管家。无能治国。何能干涉国际事务. 不知量力!

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  • HarderTruths:

    He looks constipated.

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  • Just VTO:

    UNITY is always topmost in our PM’s agenda.
    He loves signing CECAs & trade agreements all over the world to ‘unite’ us with ‘FTs’!!..
    He gets the big fat rewards from it whilst we sgs get the crumbs!
    He is a useless bugger who cant stand on his own two feet…w/o the 80plus ministars ‘holding him up’! And what good is a puppet president who only gets paid mils$ just to shake hands n attend functions?
    We should use a robot president.. cost so much less.. another sg first too. Why the hell not?

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  • Bystander:

    Yea, that should be the way – a small state should act as one, and try persuasion rather trying to show off by criticizing China about the SEA dispute, acting like a big shot country.

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  • ShapeUpOrShipOut:

    ….he totally cant stand on his own two feet.

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  • Homeless Cat:

    ShapeUpOrShipOut:
    ….he totally cant stand on his own two feet.

    Let alone on his hands or by the third leg between his larger ones.

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  • rukidding:

    His meaning of “Unity” is “different” from the Dictionary lah !

    He has to “magically” make an indian into a Malay , INORDER for his own “UNITY” to be “aligned” !

    Thats what he means by the word : “Unity” !!

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  • rukidding:

    Closer to home,….our neighbour had “wanted to take back their own air space control” ???

    Don’t know why, we need to kpkb ?…when it legally belongs to them ??

    If there was “REAL UNITY”…we should instead be “Giving our Blessings” rather than coming out with “documentary evidence” to make the “rightful owner” look “guilty” ???

    It is even more “laugable” when there were “sarcastic” words like “…I hope some common sense prevails” ???

    Is that what “Unity” ( within the group means ? )

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  • Regime Change the only way:

    Singaporeans must be “united” and vote for regime change at the next GE.

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