On November 13, at the close of the 25th ASEAN Summit in Naypyidaw, Myanmar president Thein Sein handed the ceremonial chairman’s gavel to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, marking the official handover of the annual rotating ASEAN chair from Myanmar to Malaysia for 2015. As one of the five* original founding members of ASEAN, Malaysia will be tasked with leading the organization in a year filled with important developments in the areas of community-building, economic integration, and regional architecture.
Regional community-building will top the agenda. Malaysia will preside over the organization during a critical the year in which it is expected to form an ASEAN Community (AC) by December 31, 2015. While ASEAN elites have long been skeptical that the deadline will be met, Malaysia will help formulate the “post-2015” ten-year roadmap for this community-building from 2016 to 2025. Work on this has already started, but it will nonetheless be a gargantuan task.
Economic integration will also be at the forefront of Malaysia’s chairmanship in 2015. Part of the agenda will center on the future of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), one of three pillars of the AC which aims to create a single market and production base. But Malaysia will also help conclude negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which will be the world’s largest free trade agreement grouping ASEAN, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand upon its completion by the end of 2015. RCEP’s conclusion, along with an expected launch of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), will likely lead to a deluge of commentary about the emerging shape of Asian integration and the role of China and the United States.
There will also be some conversation about the future of regional architecture – shorthand for the alphabet soup of Asian multilateral groupings such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Since 2015 marks the 10th anniversary of the EAS, which was first held in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, some have suggested that it be further institutionalized to cement its place as the premier leaders’ forum for strategic dialogue. Regarding ASEAN itself, Najib has already said that Malaysia will focus its chairmanship on strengthening ASEAN institutions and trying to increasing contributions to the organization by member states.
With this full plate and Malaysia’s concurrent role as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Malaysian officials will hope that tensions in the South China Sea do not flare up again. Even though Malaysia is a claimant state, it has traditionally preferred dealing with the issue quietly to balance protecting its interests and preserving its relationship with Beijing. Yet as previous years have demonstrated, events on the water may divide ASEAN states or force the chair to issue a separate statement. Another round of Chinese assertiveness towards Vietnam or the Philippines, or a decision by the arbitral tribunal at the Hague on the Philippines’ case against China, could well bring the South China Sea issue to the fore. Malaysia’s much-touted capacity for “moderation” and conflict resolution may once again be tested.
Beyond these specific agenda items, Malaysia’s overall theme for its chairmanship is “Our People, Our Community, Our Vision,” reflecting its leadership’s focus on “bringing ASEAN closer to the people” as Najib succinctly put it. Some are quick to dismiss this as laughable, noting that Southeast Asia continues to be dominated by authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes, and that Malaysia’s own ruling party lost the popular vote in the country’s last election in 2013. Yet moving towards a more “people-centered ASEAN” is nonetheless a laudable goal. As some have correctly pointed out, there is still an alarmingly low level of awareness about ASEAN, which still largely remains an elite-driven project.
Next year will be an important one for ASEAN, and it is fortunate to have one of its original founding members at the helm. Malaysia has already articulated a clear and ambitious agenda for its chairmanship, which will officially begin on January 1, 2015. Now it must deliver on it.
*Corrected from “four.”