Brunei Takes on the Challenges of Chairing ASEAN in 2013
February 22, 2013
Brunei Darussalam, the smallest country in Southeast Asia with a population of only 400,000, faces some daunting challenges this year as it chairs the 10-country ASEAN grouping.
For starters, Brunei must help manage tensions regarding the strategic South China Sea following last year’s acrimony after then-chair Cambodia, a major recipient of assistance from Beijing, twice sought to limit discussion of China’s assertive actions in the disputed sea. This prompted protests from several Southeast Asian countries.
Second, with the group’s goal of achieving an ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by the end of 2015, Brunei will need to press its neighbors to get cracking on implementing the agreed-upon economic road map.
A third task will involve keeping China and the United States engaged in the East Asia Summit (EAS). Many Southeast Asians wonder what impact the departure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific Kurt Campbell will have on the U.S. rebalance to Asia and U.S. relations with ASEAN.
Brunei has chosen as the theme for its chairmanship “Our people, our future together.” The sultanate will organize some 400 meetings throughout 2013. These will include two ASEAN leaders’ summits in April and October, the ASEAN Regional Forum attended by the foreign ministers of 27 Asia Pacific countries in June, and the 18-member East Asia Summit, which brings together ASEAN and its most important partners, including the United States, in October.
Bruneian officials say one of their priorities for 2013 will be enhancing the role of ASEAN youths in order to promote a region-wide sense of belonging. Other themes will include discussing environmental issues like climate change and natural disasters, tackling food and energy security, and addressing poverty eradication, sustainable development, and closing the income gap within ASEAN.
Without a doubt, Brunei’s biggest challenge will be to lower the rising nationalist sentiments in the South China Sea disputes. Since ASEAN last discussed the competing claims at the EAS last November, claimants have continued to trade barbs over the issue, and the Philippines has filed a motion to bring China’s claims before a UN arbitration tribunal. China appears to see this latest move as a challenge to its new leadership and it may look for ways to respond, perhaps by refusing to join talks with ASEAN on a long-awaited binding code of conduct for parties to the disputes.
Although Brunei is a claimant in the South China Sea, many observers give the oil-rich nation at least a shot at lowering the temperature in the disputed region because of its normally low-key international diplomatic stance. China is a major trading partner of Brunei, buying mainly oil and gas products, but it is not Brunei’s only partner, making Brunei less vulnerable to economic pressure than Cambodia was.
How well Brunei performs will depend at least in part on the diplomatic skills of its Foreign Ministry. Foreign Minister Prince Mohamed Bolkiah advocates what he calls “defense diplomacy,” a doctrine that promotes regular and frequent dialogue and personal relations among the parties. It is these skills that the foreign minister will try to use to tamp down the dispute.
Economic integration is a potentially huge opportunity for ASEAN because it will reduce barriers to trade and the movement of capital and labor, which would promote economic growth. But most ASEAN countries are still far behind schedule in implementing their commitments, which has already forced the group to delay the launch of the AEC from the beginning of 2015 until the end of the year.
Despite the leaders’ declared goals of establishing an economic community, the interests of individual nations still often trump regional interests. At the end of 2012, ASEAN countries said they had implemented 75 percent of their goals toward achieving the AEC, up from 67.5 percent in 2011. Brunei’s objective this year will be to prod its fellow ASEAN members to step on the gas to implement the reforms to which they have already committed.
Brunei is under the gun to make progress on both the South China Sea and economic integration. Next year, Myanmar will serve as ASEAN chair. Despite its recent political and economic reforms, and efforts to normalize relations with the United States and Europe following five decades of diplomatic isolation, the country suffers from a shortage of the experienced officials necessary to resolve the complicated maritime disputes and press its neighbors to complete their AEC commitments. Myanmar’s chairmanship will likely be more successful if ASEAN and China can take steps this year to draft a code of conduct and if ASEAN countries can make progress in moving closer to the AEC.
Asians will watch carefully in the early months of the year to see if the U.S. rebalance toward Asia changes in the second Obama administration. Will newly appointed Secretary of State John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who played a key role in the U.S. normalization of relations with Vietnam in the 1990s, visit Southeast Asia early in his tenure and attend the ASEAN Regional Forum in June? Will the presumptive secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, another Vietnam veteran, participate in the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus in Brunei in May and the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June? Southeast Asians assume that President Barack Obama will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali and the East Asia Summit in Brunei in October.
Some ASEAN countries have expressed concerns that the U.S. rebalance to Asia so far has focused too much on security and not enough on economics. President Obama at his summit with the ASEAN leaders in Cambodia last November unveiled two new programs that should help boost U.S. economic cooperation with the Southeast Asia countries. The first is an energy initiative that will provide $5 billion to the U.S. Export-Import Bank and $1 billion to the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to help U.S. companies sell American energy products in the region.
The second, the Expanded Economic Engagement or E3, will seek to boost the economic capacity of the ASEAN countries that have not joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks. This initiative will seek to promote trade facilitation for the movement of goods across borders, develop principles to encourage investment, and boost the digital economy, or e-commerce. U.S. officials hope that capacity building in the region under the E3 will make it possible eventually for the United States and ASEAN to negotiate a free trade agreement.
(This Commentary originally appeared in the February 21, 2013, issue of Southeast Asia from the Corner of 18th & K Streets.)
Murray Hiebert is deputy director and senior fellow of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Jeremiah O. Magpile is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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