The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 7 September concluded the 43rd ASEAN Summit and its related meetings. We review the deliverables from the summit and what to expect from ASEAN in the year ahead.

  • ASEAN will continue to be a multilateral platform for member states to engage with international partners, including on issues such as strengthening regional digital integration and transformation.
  • Following the adoption of the ASEAN Concord IV, the bloc is likely to focus on growth sectors such as regional payment connectivity, digital transformation, electric vehicles and smart cities. 
  • As part of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), regional countries are likely to promote sustainable development, cross-border data flows, climate change and logistics infrastructure. 
  • Laos’s lack of diplomatic heft means that issues such as the Myanmar crisis and South China Sea (SCS) are unlikely to see substantive progress under its 2024 chairmanship.

Epicentrum of Growth

The 43rd ASEAN Summit and its related meetings were held from 4 to 7 September in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Aside from those of ASEAN member states, leaders in attendance included ASEAN Dialogue Partners like Australia, Canada, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Korea, Russia and the US. A large portion of the forum was devoted to economic issues. The summit saw ASEAN upgrade its relationship with dialogue partners, including a Strategic Partnership with Canada and a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Japan. ASEAN leaders also adopted the ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement, which would boost cross-border trade and investments through strengthening regional digital integration and transformation.

A key deliverable pushed by ASEAN Chairman Indonesia is the ASEAN Concord IV, which was adopted by the leaders. The concord is expected to serve as the foundation for ASEAN’s development over the next two decades and strengthens the bloc’s ability to address future challenges. The concord highlights issues of concern for the region, including food security and energy transition, while explicitly outlining growth sectors for the region, including regional payment connectivity, digital transformation, a regional electric vehicle ecosystem and smart cities.

The bloc also implemented the AOIP, an initiative which promotes co-operation in the Indo-Pacific region, including on areas such as maritime co-operation, connectivity, the digital economy and sustainable development. Economic co-operation is also promoted in areas such as cross-border data flows, climate change, logistics infrastructure and smart infrastructure. The increased regional focus on co-operation in these areas is likely to be followed by relevant policies and frameworks, both at a regional as well as country level. These will be beneficial for businesses looking to invest in these areas and sectors.

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Thorny issues

While there were many positive developments on the economic front, headlines surrounding the summit were dominated by thorny issues that continue to plague the bloc, and of which there continues to be little progress. The Myanmar issue took the limelight as the military regime’s generals continued to be excluded from the summit. The Chairman’s statement reiterated that the five-point consensus remains ASEAN’s main reference for addressing the Myanmar crisis, though it also acknowledged that there remains a lack of progress on the peace plan’s implementation. The bloc also agreed that the chairmanship, which is a rotational one in alphabetical order, would skip Myanmar’s turn in 2026, with the Philippines taking on the chairmanship a year earlier. The ASEAN leaders also reportedly agreed to an informal "troika" approach to ASEAN's special envoy on Myanmar, which would see the current chair supported by the immediate former and future chairs, for continuity purposes. This would mean that Laos, the 2024 chairman, will be supported by Indonesia and Malaysia for its chairmanship year. Prior to this, each ASEAN chair assigned its own special envoy to deal with the issue, with the envoy’s approach determined by the chair and with the envoy’s term ending concurrently with the chairmanship term. ASEAN previously used the troika model during Cambodia’s political crisis in 1997, but it was somewhat ineffective as it was seen by former Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen as interfering with the country’s domestic affairs. 

The bloc also continues to face pressure over the SCS, with expectations for a regional mechanism that could manage tensions continuing to dwindle. The SCS discussions came on the heels of China’s late August release of a new map that showed more expansive territorial claims in the SCS. While individual ASEAN states such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam separately voiced their objections to the map, ASEAN as a bloc did not issue a statement. This underscores the persistent lack of a unified stand within ASEAN, which continues to water down the bloc’s credibility in managing regional tensions. This development is also likely to further delay the conclusion of a Code of Conduct, a framework envisioned to manage tensions and risks of conflicts in the SCS. 

New year, new Chair

During the closing ceremony of the summit, Indonesia ceremonially handed the chairmanship to Laos, although the change will only take effect in January 2024. Laos’s upcoming chairmanship will unlikely lead to significant breakthroughs on any of the aforementioned issues. Compared with other ASEAN states, Laos, a relatively small member of the bloc that only began its membership in 1997, does not enjoy the diplomatic and political weight needed to pursue bold initiatives. This lack of diplomatic and political capital will inevitably also make it difficult for Laos to rally the regional group to achieve a consensus on critical issues like the SCS. This was already exposed during Laos’s previous chairmanship term in 2016, when the Joint Communique of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting was silent on the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal Award that invalidated China’s massive claims in the SCS. While the failure was largely due to Cambodia’s holdout to openly rebuke China, there were widespread perceptions that Laos was not able or even not willing to assert its position as chairman to override Cambodia. 

Laos’ influence on the Myanmar crisis is likely to be heavily influenced by Indonesia and Malaysia, given that the troika of chairs advising on the chairman and special envoy’s approach would be implemented. Yet the divergence in approach between the three countries, as well as among other ASEAN member states, is likely to continue driving a wedge in the bloc and giving individual member states a large amount of leeway to continue driving dissonant bilateral approaches towards Myanmar. For instance, Indonesia has in the past year as chair quietly engaged various stakeholders within Myanmar, trying to start dialogue between relevant stakeholders. Malaysia, on the other hand, has been notably more vocal in its disapproval of Myanmar’s lack of regard for the five-point consensus. It has advocated that the bloc take stronger measures against the Myanmar military regime. This divergence in what is perceived as the right approach towards the Myanmar crisis will continue to diminish the effectiveness of bloc-led efforts.

This article is based on a research note originally published in Seerist. Find out more about how Seerist’s adaptive artificial intelligence combined with localised geopolitical risk expertise can help you identify, monitor and mitigate risks.

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