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Kudos to Asean Chair Laos Despite Hiccups

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By all accounts, Laos has performed well and managed its role efficiently, delivering nearly all of its pledges as the chair of Asean. The land-locked country also showed that it can both serve as a bridge between new and old members and at the same time represent Asean in engaging major powers.

All documents and extra ones were issued mostly on time – the last document, the chair’s statement on the 11th East Asia Summit several days before they were released. During the Lao chair, there were long sessions of debates and myriad disagreements and divergences but at the end of day, the concerned Lao officials were there, easily assessible and willing to listen. They might not have concurred immediately with proposed write-ups and paragraphs but they made no attempt to block any planned statement for release.

The EAS Statement on Non-proliferation was a case in point. Laos was at first reluctant to call on a meeting of EAS senior officials to draft a statement on nuclear non-proliferation in response to North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, which went against UN resolutions. It took the initiative of the Jakarta-based Committee of Permanent Representatives to Asean (CPR) to break the deadlock by setting a series of meetings to prepare the draft. Without the Asean chair’s sanctions, it was released a day later following the nuclear test. Those involved in the drafting process credited Myanmar and Australia as the co-sponsors for their warm collaboration.

The role of CPR at the EAS in Vientiane this time served as a new benchmark for future engagement of one of the grouping’s most important bodies. As stated in the Asean Charter, the CPR’s main responsibilities are to support and coordinate all the work of the three communities – political/security, economic, and social/culture – and engage the dialogue partners.

The EAS ambassadors have already held two meetings. Their comfort level and camaraderie has enabled them to work and subsequently issue a statement of non-proliferation. In the past, it was the primary role of senior officials. The future EAS ambassadorial meeting could be institutionalised to provide inputs for the EAS foreign ministers and leaders.

Notably, when Laos took up the chairmanship, its first response on behalf of Asean on North Korea’s nuclear test in January was mild, much to the dismay of other Asean members and its dialogue partners. However, subsequent statements on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions were tougher – in particular the September 10 statement – signalling the new Lao government’s attitude under the leadership of Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith. It was the strongest ever statement with name shaming.

For the first time, Asean expressed “grave concerns” over the specific nuclear test by North Korea. The other statement by EAS only expressed “deep concern” and called for the resumption of six-party talks.

In the Asean statement, there was no reference to six-party talks as the grouping placed more emphasis on the UN relevant resolutions and the effort to create a conducive atmosphere for peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula.

All statements related to the situation in the South China Sea also showed the chair’s diplomatic finesse in maintaining Asean centrality and solidarity.

Even though the verdict of Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the South China Sea was not mentioned in all Asean documents, call for full respect of law and diplomatic process as well as relevant international rule of law, and calls for restraint and non-militarisation were embedded in them. In all Asean plus one statements with dialogue partners, notably the US, Australia and Japan, which strongly backed the PCA ruling, did not mention the verdict.

Among other accomplishments, Laos also delivered on the work plan III under the Initiative of Asean Investment to bridge the gap between new and old members. Others included the new Master plan for Asean Connectivity 2025 as well as support for small and medium enterprises. For the first time within the EAS framework, Laos also successfully put out a plan on infrastructure projects – the Vientiane Declaration on Promoting Infrastructure Development Cooperation in East Asia.

Up until now, the EAS had only six areas of cooperation comprising energy and environment, education, finance, global health and pandemic diseases, natural disaster management and Asean Connectivity.

The next chair, Philippines, will embark on new and unseen challenges as the group celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Manila has adopted “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World” as the working theme for the next fourteen months.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who strongly made his presence felt in Vientiane among the summit leaders, is still on a learning curve. He boycotted the Asean-US and Asean-UN summits and did not attend the Asean-India one.

As the chair, Duterte’s leadership is pivotal to set forth the future direction of Asean Community-building in the next half of the century. From now on, the chair will have a huge task of fence-mending and persuasion to make sure all dialogue partners’ leaders attend all Asean-related summits in November 2017.

Source: The Nation