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Singapore Urges Asean Leaders to Assert Unity

Asean’s principle of consensus for decision-making has come under criticism in recent years. However, diplomatic sources say there is concern among Asean members the group might break up if it switched to a majority-wins voting system
Foreign ministers pose for a group photo at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting retreat in Singapore on February 6.  Foreign ministers pose for a group photo at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting retreat in Singapore on February 6.

Singapore has proposed that Asean leaders adopt a vision statement at their April summit to demonstrate a unified front as a big-power tussle for regional influence tests the 50-year-old group's cohesiveness.

Besides helping the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations navigate the intensifying showdown between outside powers like the United States and China, the envisioned final statement would be designed to help member nations adapt to rapid technological changes, Kyodo News reported.

A draft document was presented to Asean foreign ministers at their two-day meeting ending Tuesday. When it was discussed at a working dinner on Monday night, the ministers all looked to be "supportive", said an Asean official, who declined to be identified.

The proposal from Singapore, which chairs Asean this year, appears to be a bid to save the group from fragmenting after it was wracked by fierce disagreements on issues of how to deal with China's territorial claims in the region, with some members showing more loyalty to China than others.

The seven-page document, a copy of which has been obtained by Kyodo News, is titled "Asean Leaders' Vision for a Resilient and Innovative Asean".

It contains 10 key principles such as "unity and centrality", "rules-based order" and "embrace technology" and more than 30 priority areas to which leaders will pledge their focus.

The priorities range from forging an Asean extradition treaty to combat transnational crimes, to concluding with China a code of conduct for the South China Sea, to establishing an Asean smart cities network and to taking initiatives to tackle terrorism and radicalization.

List of Changes

Ticking off a list of challenges facing Asean, such as growing uncertainties in the global strategic landscape, violent extremism, climate change and maritime issues, the document seeks an Asean that is able to "navigate these challenges in a coordinated, integrated and effective manner".

On the principle of unity and centrality, the statement says, "Asean shall remain united vis-a-vis external divisive forces".

It also reaffirms Asean's principle of consensus for decision-making, which has come under criticism in recent years for leading to deadlocks when members look to resolve contentious issues.

The consensus rule is set to remain intact, with diplomatic sources saying in recent days there is concern among Asean members the group might break up if it switched to a majority-wins voting system.

Non-Interference

The statement goes on to say the grouping should "build an open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based regional architecture to effectively engage key partners in order to respond collectively and constructively to global developments and issues of common concern."

It also says Asean will maintain its long-standing "principle of non-interference in the internal affairs" of member countries.

Singapore aims to have the statement endorsed at the leaders' summit to be held in the city-state in April. Asked why there is a need for such a statement at this time, Ong Keng Yong, a former secretary general of Asean, said the vision statement is aimed at helping the group consider strategic long-term issues.

"The troubles with China over the South China Sea distracted Asean's economic integration in the past few years," said Ong, who is now executive deputy chairman of RSIS, a Singapore-based think tank.

Through the vision statement, "(Singapore) is trying to demonstrate that Asean can look at the big picture and long-term issues affecting (members') own future development," he said.

Eroding Trust

China's continued reclamation in the South China Sea has eroded trust among claimants and could raise regional tensions, Southeast Asian foreign ministers said, Rappler reported.

The ministers did not mention China by name in their statement after the meeting. Beijing claims nearly all of the waterway and has been turning reefs and islets into islands and installing military facilities and equipment on them.

ASEAN members Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam as well as Taiwan also have partial claims in the waterway.

Ministers "took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region," said Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in the statement.

Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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