A decade ago, in 2005, Malaysia chaired ASEAN. During its chairmanship, two notable events took place. First, it hosted the first East Asia Summit (EAS) where heads of states gather together for dialogue on broad strategic, political, and economic issues. Second, it established a mechanism that allows ASEAN leaders and civil society representatives to exchanges ideas with one another.
This year, Malaysia is again chairman of ASEAN and, as one of the five founding members of ASEAN, there are high expectations of its capability to establish a stronger ASEAN community, facilitate the fulfillment of economic integration, and maintain the centrality of ASEAN in the regional architecture. Its ability to lead will be tested as it balances securing the interests of the region along with its own national interests.
The changed geopolitical and economic realities in the region, as evident in the South China Sea disputes and the movement towards the establishment of an integrated ASEAN Community, will affect Malaysia’s chairmanship in ASEAN. How it will be able to adapt and cope with these changes remains to be seen.
Malaysia’s ASEAN Priorities
Establishing a people-centered ASEAN is the primary goal of Malaysia this year as is reflected in the overall theme -“Our People, Our Community, Our Vision.” For the longest time, ASEAN has been criticized as an elite-driven and state-centric project. This is illustrated by the fact that activities and projects of ASEAN are only known among experts, political leaders, and government officials but little information is disseminated to the citizens and concerned stakeholders. This low awareness level is a factor hindering the overall achievement of community building, as expressed by ASEAN’s Secretary General Le Luong Minh in his remarks on ASEAN’s community building efforts in March 2013.
The success of the ASEAN Community will not only be reflected in the improvement of people’s lives but also how the people take ownership of it. By creating an inclusive environment that welcomes and engages ASEAN citizens in the building process, Malaysia will surely be able to bring ASEAN a step closer to the people. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak emphasized that there must be involvement of all sectors in the society in ASEAN activities and processes.
Aside from building a community that values inclusivity, Malaysia is prioritizing and promoting the practice of effective and responsive governance. It also seeks to provide solutions to ‘soft’ issues such as strengthening ASEAN institutions and mechanisms, environmental protection, empowering women in societies, and providing opportunity for all. In this way, people engagement will contribute to the development and greater prosperity of the region.
Regional economic integration
2015 marks an important and crucial year for ASEAN as the ten member states are geared towards the integration and realization of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). Among the three pillars of the ASEAN Community, the AEC has arguably been the most productive, and ASEAN Member States (AMS) have adopted 80 percent of all measures based on scorecards. But issues related to non-tariff barriers, the free flow of skilled workers, and varying levels of development among member states, remain a challenge to regional economic integration.
Malaysia faces tough challenges as it tries to get ASEAN closer to fulfilling the AEC. Projects and initiatives such as the ASEAN Single Window (ASW), ASEAN Single Aviation Market, and ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework, among others, created in fulfillment of ASEAN’s goals as envisioned in the three pillars of the ASEAN Community, must be more specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. Therefore, there is a need to closely monitor the progress of incomplete tasks and make sure that completed ones progress even further.
The South China Sea disputes
Another crucial issue is the South China Sea (SCS) disputes. China’s growing assertiveness makes Malaysia’s role as ASEAN chair critical, and balancing national and regional interests will be its greatest challenge since Malaysia is a claimant and has its own approach to the issue.
As a claimant state in the SCS, Malaysia has traditionally preferred quiet diplomacy rather than taking a tough stance against China. Analysts argue that this is due to Malaysia’s close relations with China. These two countries have a two-way trade volume that reached $106 billion in 2013, and Malaysia has become China’s third largest trading partner in Asia and its top trading partner in ASEAN. But increasing encroachments of Chinese vessels into Malaysian waters has caused some caution in Kuala Lumpur. This has factored into Malaysia’s calculations as it seeks to increase its capabilities, including by stepping up patrols along its coastlines and announcing the establishment of a naval base not far from James Shoal in Bintulu, Sarawak.
Malaysia says it is committed in pushing forth region-wide solutions to the SCS disputes. It looks favorably upon the adoption of the Code of Conduct (COC) that will provide a pragmatic framework to manage the disputes peacefully. Ideally, Malaysia would be an effective facilitator in concluding the COC with China given their close relations. However, experts are wary that it would likely continue its preventive diplomacy or “low-profile” approach in addressing its maritime territorial disputes. It is in Malaysia’s interest to manage its disputes with China bilaterally than internationalizing it. It will not take the risk of disrupting its beneficial relations with China because any disruption entails economic costs.
ASEAN has been successful in convening major powers in multilateral platforms such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Through these platforms, ASEAN is able to lead other states and is simultaneously given diplomatic leverage in its relations with big powers. AMS are also able to promote their interests. Therefore, it is essential that ASEAN, through Malaysia’s leadership, maximize these avenues for dialogues and assert ASEAN’s centrality. ASEAN must continue to lead in the shaping of the evolving regional architecture. Moreover, this year, as Malaysia chairs ASEAN during the 10th year anniversary of the EAS, crafting the agenda will prove challenging as it will be expected to incorporate broader interests and take into account proposals for its evolution.
Malaysia’s chairmanship is happening during exciting and challenging times. Expectations can be quite overwhelming as it straddles between political and economic considerations. Addressing issues related to the economic and socio-cultural pillars will be at the top of Malaysia’s list of priorities. Nonetheless, Malaysia must also discuss concerns that are political and security oriented. It must balance hard and soft issues.
Even if the deadline for the ASEAN Community is not met, as many expect, the challenge for Malaysia will be to accelerate progress towards the achievement of the ASEAN Community and regional integration. Equally essential to this task is Malaysia’s role in formulating the post-2015 roadmap for the community building. In the longer-term, the expectation is that ASEAN can move forward to become truly people-centered.
Moreover, ASEAN centrality should not be about rhetoric but must be affirmed by member states. Even when the national interests of AMS continue to trump regional ideals in geopolitical and security matters, ASEAN must stay on course and maintain unity despite diversity.
Effective leadership for Malaysia in 2015 means finding a strategic balance between engaging big powers and AMS; creating avenues through which all stakeholders are comfortable. It also means ensuring that Malaysia’s national interests do not trump the region’s interests.
Jeremie P. Credo is a Foreign Affairs Research Specialist with the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute. This article was originally published as a CIRSS commentary by the Foreign Service Institute of the Philippines here.