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International relations

ASEAN seeks to steer middle path between US and China

Southeast Asian leaders come up with their own Indo-Pacific strategy

Thailand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gestures during a press conference following the Association of Southeast Asian Nations opening ceremony in Bangkok on June 23.   © AP

BANGKOK -- Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed on a self-developed vision called the "ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific" as the bloc navigates the elevated tensions between the United States and China.

"The summit agreed with Thailand's initiative to reinforce ASEAN's leading role in the conduct of relations with external partners in the region," said Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand, which is chairing ASEAN this year. "ASEAN now has a common approach on the issue."

Prayuth was speaking at a news conference on June 23 after the first round of two summits this year.

The outlook provides a guide for ASEAN's engagement in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, according to the final document as seen by the Nikkei Asian Review. It also recognizes the potential for cooperation with other regional groupings in the regions. It says these can be realized through "innovative, interdisciplinary and complementary approaches."

"Indo-Pacific" is a term that has been used by the U.S. and Japan to promote economic and security ties with countries between India and the Pacific coast of the U.S. It is also a region in which China seeks to strengthen its presence.

"ASEAN believes that cooperation under the Indo-Pacific concept should be based on inclusiveness and ASEAN centrality," Prayuth said at the news conference. "It should also complement existing frameworks of cooperation at the regional and subregional levels and generate tangible and concrete deliverables for the benefit of the region's principles."

Cambodia and Laos, which receive a large amount of Chinese direct investment, are perhaps more closely allied with China than ASEAN's eight other members. In devising the vision, it was important for ASEAN to highlight the bloc's independent and open stance so that it can maintain good relationships with the U.S. and China.

ASEAN constitutes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

It is a general ASEAN custom to agree on specific topics only unanimously. The Thailand-initiated vision was also championed by Indonesia during the past two years but met with opposition from other member countries until very recently.

The vision evolved while the bloc "remained concerned over the unabating tide of protectionism and anti-globalization sentiments that continue to plague the global economy and put multilateralism under threat," according to the chairman's statement, released after Prayuth's news conference.

On the growing presence of Chinese forces in the South China Sea, ASEAN "took note of some concerns on" island-building and other activities in the area, the document says. According to a preliminary draft, Thailand at first tried to remove a sentence expressing concerns about South China Sea issues.

The ASEAN leaders also waded into the Korean Peninsula issue. North Korea has assumed a more provocative military stance since leader Kim Jong Un met with U.S. President Donald Trump in Vietnam at the end of February. The summit was abruptly cut short. "We reiterated our commitment to the full implementation of all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions and noted international efforts to bring about the complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," the chairman's statement says, reviving the key words known as "CVID"

The ASEAN leaders also reiterated its commitment to concluding negotiations of the China-initiated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, within this year. "It will help ASEAN manage change and uncertainty in the region, especially as regards the trade tension between ASEAN's important trading partners," Prayuth said.

However, officials from multiple member countries have noted that much work remains, as only 30% to 40% of the RCEP agenda has been debated and cleared. Big topics such as intellectual property, e-commerce and financial services have yet to be discussed.

A RCEP agreement would cover nearly half of the world's population and 30% of global trade by value.

The leaders also touched base on the issue of Rohingya refugees who fled Myanmar for Bangladesh by the hundreds of thousands. Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, representing the host country, said ASEAN wants Myanmar and Bangladesh to discuss the issue and set a timeline for the refugees' return.

Myanmar informed ASEAN about the issuance of identification cards to the refugees so they can be identified when they return to their home state of Rakhine.

ASEAN leaders also decided to develop a joint bid for the 2034 World Cup. Soccer is one of the region's most popular sports, and owning a team is considered a status symbol among Asian billionaires.

The second and last round of the 2019 ASEAN summits is scheduled for Oct. 31 to Nov. 4. Leaders from outside the region are expected to join.

Nikkei staff writer Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat in Bangkok contributed to this article.

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