Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Philippines Suggests that Turkey and Mongolia Can Join ASEAN

This week Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that the leaders of Turkey and Mongolia had approached him about joining ASEAN.  Duterte said that they made the request to him, as the Philippines is currently ASEAN Chair, and that he was happy to “sponsor” their membership applications.

The difficulty with this request is that neither country is part of Southeast Asia, which was noted by Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.  President Duterte responded,

They are. I would say that they are. Turkey, it seems to be ambivalent to whether to be a bridge sa (to) Europe and Asia or being an Asian. Wala silang klaro diyan (There is nothing definite there.) There has always been an ambivalent view. Sometimes they say that they are part of Asia, sometimes they say that they are the bridge of Asia to Europe.”

However, a “definite” concept of Southeast Asia underpins the membership criteria for ASEAN.  Article 6.2(a) of the ASEAN Charter states that new members must have a “location in the recognised geographical region of Southeast Asia.”  Neither Turkey nor Mongolia could objectively be considered part of Southeast Asia. 

Blurring the “recognised” area of Southeast Asia, furthermore, would result in difficulties regarding Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya.  

By comparison, Timor-Leste is recognised as geographically part of Southeast Asia, meaning that it easily satisfies Article 6.2(a).

Thus, although the ASEAN Charter can be amended by the ASEAN Summit (which was done, for example, by changing the order of the ASEAN Chair terms), it is difficult to imagine ASEAN leaders agreeing to Turkey and Mongolia joining the grouping.

This is not the first time countries far removed from Southeast Asia have been suggested for membership in ASEAN.  Sri Lanka (at the beginning of ASEAN), Fiji, and most recently Australia have been mooted as potential members.  However, these proposals did not go very far.  The prospects for Turkey and Mongolia look similarly dim, meaning similar outcomes of either politely ignoring the proposal, or clarifying (diverting) them into the ASEAN Regional Forum or free trade agreement talks with ASEAN.

The episode demonstrates, once again, why ASEAN needs the rules and rules-based order established by the ASEAN Charter.  Without the Charter, this discussion of membership would be governed by the politics and diplomacy of the moment, rather than legal and institutional foundations.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

ASEAN-X Risks Diluting RCEP

This week the Philippines proposed an alteration to the negotiating paradigm of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), in an effort to relieve the logjam currently affecting the RCEP free trade agreement (FTA) talks involving 16 countries, ASEAN plus India, China, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand.  The difficulty is that the Philippine proposal may add more complications to what is already a complex set of trade talks and increases the likelihood that those talks will result in a weaker FTA.

The Philippine proposal basically calls for the RCEP parties to apply “variable geometry” to the RCEP commitments.  Variable geometry, in FTA terms, allows parties to apply trade liberalization commitments on an asymetrical basis, e.g., not all FTA parties implementing their commitments at the same time or to the same extent.

In ASEAN, this is known as “ASEAN-X,” provided in Article 21.2 of the ASEAN Charter. A subset of ASEAN members can proceed with faster economic integration, with the understanding that other ASEAN members can later join the subset when they are ready. In this way, the integration process can continue and achieve the same end result, albeit at varying speeds. 

Thus, ASEAN-X is a useful tool to promote economic integration. The problem comes when not all parties share the understanding that the non-participating ASEAN members will eventually join the subset. As I explained in previously, this can happen when there are multiple subsets of ASEAN countries, or subsets which result from fundamentally incompatible policies. 

This is difficult enough in the ASEAN context, where at least there are regional institutions and processes in ASEAN to move the process along, however slowly.  Application of the ASEAN-X formula to the RCEP process could be even more problematic.  The RCEP talks have stalled because China, Japan, India, and Korea have no FTAs among them, whereas ASEAN has FTAs with those countries.  As a result, the RCEP talks have had difficulties “squaring the circle,” both among the three northeast Asian countries and, for all countries involved, in negotiating with India.  Application of the ASEAN-X formula could thus result in multiple subsets of RCEP being created for these countries.

That of course, undermines one of the fundamental objectives of the RCEP, which was to streamline the trading and investment relationships among the RCEP partners.  Furthermore, if the variable geometries are baked into the RCEP agreement, it will be more difficult for the RCEP parties, operating without established institutions and processes, to move the outliers into the main body of the RCEP commitments.

If applied to the RCEP talks, therefore, ASEAN-X and variable geometry could end the negotiating impasse.  But doing so carries the risk of diluting what already promises to be a relatively weak product from the RCEP talks. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

VP Mike Pence Reaffirms U.S.-ASEAN Ties

This week U.S. Vice President Mike Pence visited the ASEAN Secretariat, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to have visited ASEAN headquarters.   Pictured below is Vice President Pence meeting with ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh.


Vice President Pence also met with the permanent representatives of the ASEAN member states and members of the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative, a U.S.-sponsored people-to-people initiative.

The Pence visit should be viewed as a positive diplomatic development.

First, the Trump administration’s gesture of engaging with ASEAN as an institution should be much appreciated by ASEAN.  President Obama visited Indonesia twice but never made an appearance at the ASEAN Secretariat.

Second, Vice President Pence announced that in November President Trump would attend both the APEC Summit in Vietnam and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Manila.  President Trump’s participation in both meetings was not a given; President Obama missed 2 APEC summits and 3 EAS meetings during his presidency. 

Third, when combined with the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting scheduled for May 4 with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, these moves signal renewed attention to Southeast Asia as a region.

For the United States, a little goes a long way in ASEAN.  Moves such as the Pence visit matter in the region’s diplomatic circles; previous U.S. absences from Asian regional meetings such as APEC and EAS were frequently criticized.  Moreover, U.S. support of ASEAN economic integration initiatives such as the ASEAN Single Window promises a big return for a small investment.  A fully functioning ASEAN Economic Community – one that operates both as a single market and a single production base – represents a great opportunity for American business.

Thus, the Pence visit and its accompanying initiatives are a welcome signal that America’s relationship with ASEAN remains a vital part of U.S. foreign policy.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

AEC 2025 Consolidated Strategic Action Plan

This week ASEAN published the “AEC 2025 Consolidated Strategic Action Plan (CSAP).” The plan lays out both the specific steps associated with implementing the Asean Economic Community (AEC) 2025 Blueprint, along with the anticipated timeframe. 

ASEAN stated that the CSAP “allows for more structured tracking and reporting of the implementation progress of the AEC Blueprint 2025. The AEC 2025 CSAP also facilitates stakeholder feedback to ASEAN economic integration priorities in the succeeding years, as it will be reviewed and updated periodically over the 10-year period.”

The CSAP is indeed a positive step forward, as the AEC Blueprint 2025 was necessarily aspirational in nature.   The CSAP is more practical and has more specified tasks, although much of the CSAP is aspirational as well.

Yet the CSAP does not indicate how the “tracking and reporting of the implementation progress” will be done.  ASEAN has only done two AEC Scorecards, and the most recent scoring, which was not in the form of a scorecard, was limited only to a review of “key deliverables” for 2015.  Since that time, there has been no detailed reporting, on a country-specific and program-specific basis, provided by ASEAN. Hopefully the CSAP will allow for this in the future, as the lack of monitoring and compliance mechanisms is a deficiency in ASEAN’s institutional structure.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

How Does Trump's America View ASEAN?

How does America view ASEAN in the new Trump era?  After two weeks, there is one big news item and some smaller ones.

First, the big talking point is the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea dispute.  Comments by Trump administration figures regarding the maritime dispute have been much discussed in the media, particularly in the U.S.-China context.  Yet the comments go beyond that. They remind all players in the region that the dispute is an international dispute with multiple parties involved, which cannot be resolved on a bilateral basis only between China and the Philippines, for example.  If the new U.S. administration can maintain the narrative on this basis, and avoid the on-the-ground escalations with China which have plagued previous new U.S. administrations in their early days (e.g., Taiwan in the Clinton administration or the Hainan island incident in the Bush 43 administration), so much the better for a peaceful management of the situation.

Second, less publicized was last week’s formation of a bipartisan ASEAN caucus in the U.S. Congress.  This comes after more than two years of effort in Washington, and is a positive development. As I discussed in a previous post, perhaps the biggest gain is the creation of another link with ASEAN countries for whom bilateral relations are strained at the moment, such as the Philippines. 

Third, a recent poll by YouGov published in the New York Times illustrates that country’s fall in reputation in the U.S. since 2014.  Polls taken in 2014 and 2017 surveyed Americans’ perceptions of other countries as allies or enemies of the United States, further breaking down perceptions based on party preferences; I post some selected data here (green shading means positive, red shading means negative):



This poll should be viewed as an indication of both familiarity and popularity.  The former explains why European countries are the highest ranked, given that most Americans originated in Europe, and Europe is closer geographically.  The latter is affected by historical memory; Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia and Pakistan fall near the bottom of the rankings, and North Korea is consistently ranked as the worst enemy.

For ASEAN countries, the poll shows mixed results.  The Philippines went from being the highest ranked Asian country in 2014 (9th) to falling to 41st place in 2017.  This reflects the constant negative media coverage of the Duterte administration since it came to power.  On the other hand, this ranking is consistent with rankings for the other ASEAN countries and is still higher than the other seven ranked members (the poll itself is distorted by not including Brunei and Singapore, although it did include sparsely-populated Greenland, which was ranked 10th in 2014 and 23rd in 2017!).

For the other ASEAN countries, the polls show their relative lack of impression on the American public. The rankings show relatively little movement from 2014 to 2017, which was the case for most Asian countries (the above chart shows Japan, South Korea, China and North Korea for reference).  Furthermore, it is hard to discern the links between favorability and recent developments in the region.  For example, Myanmar went through a transition to a democratic government led by the popular Aung San Suu Kyi, yet the poll says that it fell in rankings from 102nd in 2014 to 117th in 2017, and ranked lower than Cambodia.    Vietnam, which has a large diaspora in the U.S., ranked lower than Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which do not, probably because of lingering sentiments from the Vietnam War (which ended more than 40 years ago).

The foregoing indicates that ASEAN members will need to be resourceful in the coming years, given their diplomatic and political situations.  The ASEAN congressional caucus is a useful forum for ASEAN members, but other tools and means should be pursued.   ASEAN members need to expand American perceptions of ASEAN beyond the South China Sea and media reports, and increase economic and cultural ties. For example, the Trump administration has signaled that it may pursue bilateral free trade agreements with Malaysia and Thailand. This opportunity comes because of the demise of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and should be pursued by all sides.

In other words, ASEAN faces a significantly different relationship with the United States. Rather than simply throwing up their collective hands in frustration (or worse) its members need to engage and work with the United States to build upon that relationship.