Thailand assumes chairmanship of ASEAN

In a ceremony in Singapore last week, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha received the symbolic gavel signaling the start of Thailand’s chair country role in the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for 2019. Prayut pledged to promote connectivity, transparency and people-to-people links.

President Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore presented Prime Minister Prayut with the gavel at the conclusion of the two-day ASEAN summit in the Lion City, the 33rd summit in the bloc’s history. Singapore is the current chair of the grouping, and the handover was mainly ceremonial, as Thailand’s turn as chair will begin on 1 January 2019.

The Thai Prime Minister said the theme of the Kingdom’s year as chair country would be “advancing partnership for sustainability.”

Thai diplomats said the Kingdom would push for ASEAN to finalize and adopt the South China Sea code of conduct and the group’s negotiating positions on joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a larger free-trade grouping.

ASEAN occupies a strategic geographic position straddling the sea-lanes between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. More than $5.3 trillion in trade passes through its waters each year, including $1.2 trillion in goods traded with and from the United States.

Tensions still exist between several ASEAN members and China over territorial claims in the South China Sea. Prayut said that Thailand wants to build strategic trust by fostering further cooperation between ASEAN and China, “which will turn the South China Sea into a sea of peace and stability.”

As a region, ASEAN has a combined gross domestic product of $2.4 trillion, combined growth rates in the neighborhood of 5 percent, and over 630 million consumers.

Nonetheless, Prayut acknowledged that the grouping faces challenges. He named trade and political competition, disruptive technologies and transnational crimes, as among the issues and problems ASEAN must tackle. He called on members to “collaborate even more closely” on the principles of mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual benefit.

ASEAN Member States are key diplomatic, economic, and security partners for the United States. The U.S.-ASEAN relationship began in 1977 and has since expanded significantly.
The U.S. was the first non-ASEAN country to establish a resident ambassador and permanent mission to the organization. In 2015, the U.S. and ASEAN elevated their relationship to a strategic partnership, and in 2016 the first multi-day U.S.-ASEAN Summit was held at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California.