Brunei Caps Off a Solid Year at ASEAN’s Helm

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Brunei Caps Off a Solid Year at ASEAN’s Helm

Haze, integration and disarmament were among the hot topics of this year’s summit.

The ASEAN Summit ended in Brunei on a high note with leaders of the 10-nation trading bloc striking the right note with China over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea and reaching an agreement on how best to combat the dreaded haze and promises to forge deeper ties.

A new system to deal with the annual haze will involve the sharing of digitized land-use maps and concession maps of fire-prone areas that cause haze. The data will be shared among the governments of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Thailand.

This should allow the authorities to pinpoint where the fires started, often through burning off to make way for rubber and palm oil plantations, and perhaps by whom, which should lead to prosecutions and help prevent a return to the thick smog that has blanketed much of Southeast Asia almost every year since it was first reported in 1997.

By all reports the mood was buoyant as leaders touched down in Bandar Seri Begawan for the ASEAN and East Asia Summits, with a slew of trade and diplomatic meetings held on the sidelines featuring the U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia, India and Russia, among countries sending high-level delegations.

Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah noted that 279 measures, or 79.7 percent of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) Blueprint had been implemented ahead of its formation, scheduled for the end of 2015. He also said ASEAN aims to double the bloc’s combined GDP to $4.4 trillion and reduce the population who live in poverty to 9.3 percent by 2030.

The summit also focused on consolidating an economically integrated, politically cohesive and socially responsible community that would ensure ASEAN's place in the international community once the AEC is launched and beyond.

ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh said ASEAN would remain focused on implementing the remaining 2015 targets and ensuring greater convergence of those three pillars.

The ASEAN member states also called for a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Southeast Asian region, adding that there would be further cooperation in demining. Work on an ASEAN common visa for non-ASEAN and ASEAN nationals was also moving ahead.

However, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra warned that ASEAN must speed up integration at the regional level, by reducing gaps in development and strengthening regulations while speeding up logistics in regard to trade.

"These linkages will help change ASEAN from a single market and production base to an important part of Asia-Pacific growth. This connectivity will help build safe borders for joint security," she said.

However, the most controversial issue was Myanmar. The summit was criticized for its failure to recognize the violence inflicted upon that country’s Muslim communities over the past 12 months, while critics were far from convinced that Yangon was ready to play host to ASEAN in 2014.

Regardless, Brunei was warmly applauded for its handling of the ASEAN chair, which followed a difficult year with Cambodia as hosts. Last year’s summit was the culmination of 12 months of bickering and infighting within ASEAN, particularly over how best to handle Chinese claims over the Spratly Islands.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.