By Reuters and Genalyn Kabiling
BANGKOK – Southeast Asian leaders agreed on Sunday to work together on the region’s economy and security to strengthen their position to face growing US-China tensions, as they wrapped up their summit in Bangkok.
The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will need its collective economic strength for bargaining power globally, especially amid the trade tensions between the world’s top two economies, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told a news conference, as chairman of the 34th ASEAN Summit.
Prayuth urged ASEAN nations to complete negotiations this year for the China-initiated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) pact that includes 16 countries but has been held up by disputes between China and India over access to markets and protected lists of goods.
Negotiations began in 2012 on RCEP, which envisages the creation of a free trade zone encompassing 45 percent of the world’s population and more than a third of its GDP, but does not involve the United States.
“This will help ASEAN handle the changes and uncertainty that will happen in the region going forward, particularly the impacts of trade tension between ASEAN’s important trade partners,” Prayuth said.
First proposed by China, RCEP’s 16 signatories comprise the 10 ASEAN member states and six Asia-Pacific countries, including major economies China, India, Japan and South Korea. ASEAN has existing free-trade agreements with all six countries.
“If we can do this, we will have the bargaining power and base for negotiation. Because when combined, we are 650 million people, the largest regional bloc in the world,” the Thai prime minister said of ASEAN.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told reporters that ASEAN “must expect some fallout” from the US-China trade war, pointing to Singapore’s already slowing economy this year.
Four ASEAN countries – Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam – will discuss the trade war in next week’s G20 summit, which assembles 20 major economies, in Tokyo, Prayuth said. Thailand will host the next ASEAN summit in November.
The 10-member ASEAN has adopted the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” that will serve as a guideline in engaging external partners in the wider region.
Prayut said, the ASEAN leaders forged the regional strategy proposed by Indonesia to protect interests in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions during the summit in Bangkok this weekend.
“We adopted the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific which will help guide ASEAN’s engagement and cooperation in the wider Indo-Pacific region,”Prayut, also this year’s ASEAN chairman, said in a statement.
“We reaffirmed ASEAN centrality, inclusiveness, complementarities, a rules-based order anchored upon international law, and commitment to advancing economic engagement in the region as the main principles of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” he said.
In this regard, he said ASEAN-led mechanisms can serve as platforms for dialogue and implementation of Indo-Pacific cooperation.
South China Sea
The chairman’s statement, released later on Sunday, called for a de-escalation of tension in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest waterways, and a potential flashpoint in the region as several ASEAN members – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia – as well as China and Taiwan have conflicting territorial claims.
“We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states … that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea,” the statement said, without naming China but referring instead to its militarization of islands and islets.
The statement also said a first reading of a Code of Conduct negotiating draft for the disputed South China Sea would likely be finished by this year. Thailand has said the final reading could be expected by the end of 2021.
“There are some issues in the COC which are going to be very difficult to work out – in their nature they are going to be contentious,” Singapore’s Lee said. “I think the vital interests will not be easy to reconcile.”
The chairman’s statement also said ASEAN supported the repatriation process of Myanmar’s fleeing Rohingyas, but stopped short of condemning Myanmar.
PH-Malaysia barter trade
The Philippines is seeking to hasten negotiations on the establishment of a barter trade system with Malaysia to spur economic development and generate jobs.
President Duterte made the pitch for bilateral cooperation in barter trade with Malaysia during the summit talks attended by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Bangkok last Sunday.
“I earnestly ask His Excellency the Prime Minister of Malaysia for our two countries to fast track negotiations on the barter trade system as this promises livelihood and income to small communities along border areas,” Duterte said at the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Growth Area or BIMP-EAGA summit in Bangkok last Sunday.
The President said the establishment of barter trade would be “an investment for peace and for inclusive, equitable, sustainable development, especially in the newly established Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.”
“It will help address endemic poverty and avoid triggers of instability and insecurity in these porous areas of the Bangsamoro region,” he added.
In October 2018, the President signed an order, reviving the old barter trading system in Mindanao. Barter is an ancient commercial practice among the people in the southern Philippines that continues to thrive and evolve as a living tradition until the present day, according to Duterte.
Under Executive Order No. 64, Duterte created the Mindanao Barter Council (MBC) to supervise the trade of goods under the barter system as well as established initial barter ports in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Under the barter system in the south, imported goods valued under P10,000 will be exempt from national and local tax laws.
More responsive EAGA
Meanwhile, President Duterte called for the establishment of a facilitation center within the East Asean Growth Area (EAGA) involving Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said.
Panelo said the President made this push when he participated in the 13th BIMP-EAGA Summit, held on the sidelines of the ASEAN 34th Summit held here, on Sunday.
He said in the meeting that Duterte called a “reunion of old friends,” the President said the facilitation center would be a fully functioning secretariat that would make the sub-regional cooperation bloc “more responsive and resilient in view of the dynamism within the region.”
Panelo said the President also pushed for the realization of the regional food basket strategy to maximize each member-countries economy.
He said Duterte also batted for the development of the halal industry into a global industry and improve air linkages and sub-regional trade through the speedy adoption of a common standard in the operation of non-convention ships.
“President Duterte asked his fellow ASEAN leaders to ensure the full and timely implementation of the Priority Infrastructure Projects under the BIMP-EAGA Vision 2025. (With a report from PNA)