South China Sea, RCEP, Indo-Pacific policy, marine waste: Everything that was discussed at the ASEAN summit

The 34th Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bangkok has concluded after much debate on climate change and trade relations. The escalating tensions between the US and China and its potential shockwaves in South east Asia and the RCEP dominated discourse. Concerns about marine waste and plastic dumping also made its way to the agenda. At the summit, India also got a tiny nod as the ASEAN members acknowledged their Indo-Pacific policy.

The ASEAN summit 2019 took place in Bangkok, Thailand, between June 22 and 23. Attending countries included Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. Papua New Guinea and Timor Leser are observer nations while the rest are members.

ASEAN was formed to not only give southeast Asian countries more visibility on the global stage, but also foster deeper trade, political, and social relations in the region.

This year, Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha is ASEAN chairman.

India and BIMSTEC

India has been trying to emphasise its ‘Look East’ policy by favouring BIMSTEC relations. BIMSTEC— Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation— countries include Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, and Bhutan.

For his swearing-in ceremony, Prime Minister Modi chose to invite BIMSTEC countries over SAARC, in part to freeze out Pakistan after the Pulwama terrorist attack and subsequent airstrikes.

ASEAN has reciprocated with its new Indo-Pacific policy lead by Indonesia.

The policy says, “‘Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions’ are ‘closely integrated and interconnected region, with ASEAN playing a central and strategic role’ and Indo Pacfici region should be a region of ‘dialogue and cooperation instead of rivalry’ and ‘development and prosperity for all.’”

India has always welcomed ASEAN’s cooperation in the region and prefers its centrality to pro-Chinese policies. DNA reports that PM Modi is a supporter of ASEAN’s newly acknowledged Indo-Pacific policy.

ASEAN braces for US-China trade war and South China Sea disputes

Although Myanmar received backlash from human rights groups on its decision to repatriate Rohingya Muslims, ASEAN debate focused more on relations in light of increased hostility between the US and China.

Trade tensions between the US and China have been escalating since the Trump administration withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2016. Recently, after growing frustrated with the slow pace of trade talks, Trump announced a 25% tariff on Chinese goods worth $200 billion.

In an effort to increase pressure on China, the Trump administration might have antagonised the east Asian superpower further by effectively banning Huawei, a Chinese telecom company, from doing business with American firms.

In retaliation, China said it will raise tariffs on $60 billion American goods, thereby increasing the trade surplus it has with the US.

Amidst this back and forth, ASEAN is bracing for unsavoury reverberations and working to implement the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). ASEAN states, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand will all likely be a part of RCEP to engage in more trade in east Asia.  

“RCEP is key to increasing trade volume,” said Thai government official Werachon Sukhondhapatipak. If implemented, the RCEP could become the largest trade agreement since the GATT.

India has been hesitant to join the RCEP because of the concern that Chinese goods might flood the Indian market at the expense of Indian exports. India also does not want to reduce tariffs in certain industries like agriculture and textile because it wants domestic sales without added international competition.

In another effort to engage with China, ASEAN countries will be adopting a Code of Conduct (COC) to resolve disputes in the South China Sea.

ASEAN Summit 2019 pledges to curb marine waste

If climate change wasn’t such a serious and urgent matter, one might appreciate the irony of the ASEAN summit discussing the topic at Thailand that was recently in the spotlight for high levels of pollution.

While Thailand prepared for the summit, its smog and dust levels prompted the government to provide ASEAN officials with face masks for extra protection.

Head of Climate Change Data Center at Chiang Mai University Sate Sampattagul said that the high pollution levels were caused by routine, annual forest burning for agricultural purposes. Sampattagul added that illegal burning was also contributing to the increased haze.

Reuters reports that Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand dump the most plastic into the ocean.

At the summit, ASEAN leaders pledged to combat pollution by curbing plastic waste disposed in the ocean by signing the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris. This agreement asks signatories to “strengthen actions at the national level as well as through collaborative actions… to prevent and significantly reduce marine debris,” says Reuters.

However, ASEAN does not have punitive measures for countries that do not adhere to agreements and instead works on a purely voluntary basis. So environemntalists, while appreciating the gesture, are concerned about the extent to which southeast Asia will actually curb pollution.

At the G20 summit in Japan next week, countries will again pledge to tackle marine pollution.

Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius

ASEANClimate Change