34th ASEAN Summit Marks a Milestone in Thailand’s ASEAN Chairmanship
Nowhere else on earth could shadow puppets, Khon, Chinese opera, contemporary dance with Hanuman riding a Segway with an Ipad in his hand, be so harmoniously combined together in one single performance than a show presented in an ASEAN Member State. That was how “Vivid ASEAN,” one of the key performances at the Opening Ceremony of the 34th ASEAN Summit held during 22 – 23 June 2019 in Bangkok, was presented. The show beautifully represented the diversity and broad cultural spectrum of the region, while cleverly instilling a sense of the region’s shared vision and vivid determination for the future, before the eyes of the keen ASEAN Leaders.
Thailand is half-way through its Chairmanship of ASEAN for 2019. Thailand hosted the 34th ASEAN Summit at a timely moment when the region is repeatedly tested with various challenges stemming from economic tensions between major powers and complex regional issues.
To overcome these challenges, Thailand, as ASEAN Chair, believes that collaboration with external partners is essential, as implied in the theme “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability.” Yet ASEAN should firmly maintain its relevance and centrality in the regional architecture. Additionally, Thailand also champions Sustainability of Things (SOT), or sustainability in all dimensions, and the promotion of inclusive development that leaves no one behind and looks to the future.
So far Thailand has been consistent in turning vision into action. It has hosted meetings that covered many relevant issues under the three pillars of the ASEAN Community ranging from drug monitoring to border management as well as the negotiations to realize the world’s largest free trade area – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and the preparations to digitize and prepare ASEAN for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
In terms of building a people-centred ASEAN Community, Thailand collaborated with other ASEAN Member States to promote and protect the rights of vulnerable groups like migrant workers, women and children, as well as victims of human trafficking. Thailand advocated for the sustainable use of natural resources and raising awareness on the problems caused by marine debris.
Thanks to the hard work done by ASEAN colleagues in the first half of 2019, by the time the leaders gathered in Bangkok for the 34th ASEAN Summit, they were able to launch two major deliverables, adopt several key documents and agree on many issues of common interest.
The first major deliverable is the inclusion of the ASEAN Centre of Military Medicine in Thailand, as a subsidiary body under the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting. The Centre will enable an establishment of practical and effective cooperation amongst the military medical services of ASEAN and its Dialogue Partners. The second deliverable is the launch of the Disaster Emergency Logistics System for ASEAN (DELSA) Satellite Warehouse in Chainat Province, Thailand, which fulfills DELSA’s plan to establish satellite warehouses in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand to strengthen disaster response capacity. The size of the Chainat Warehouse is 1,250 square metres and will serve as relief distribution hub for mainland Southeast Asia. Being a natural disaster – prone region, the setting up of a practical regional management mechanism to help prevent and mitigate victims’ suffering is a significant achievement of vital importance to the people of ASEAN.
A famous verse from the ASEAN Anthem states that “We dare to dream we care to share” and this means ASEAN will listen to every voice and include everyone on the journey to building a caring community with people at the core of attention. During the 34th ASEAN Summit, leaders had the opportunity to engage with representatives of parliamentarians, youths and the private sector through the mechanisms of ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly (AIPA), ASEAN Youth, and ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ASEAN-BAC) respectively.
A nice gimmick to remind participants of the meetings that ASEAN actually does not leave anyone behind appeared in the form of complimentary coffee and beverages from the Thai brand Amazon Cafe, stationed right in front of the meeting rooms. But of course, this was not free coffee without a catch. All the baristas at this particular cafe have hearing impairments, therefore, all orders had to be made through sign language. The lesson to be learnt from this setting, is that finding the patience to understand each other through regular communication among all members of the society is one of the first steps in building a caring community.
On sustainability, an added value from the Special ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Marine Debris on 5 March 2019 is the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris in ASEAN Region adopted during the Summit. The Declaration calls for ASEAN members to combat marine debris by strengthening national laws and regulations as well as by promoting the principle of 3R – reduce, reuse, recycle.
On the same day that the Bangkok Summit concluded, local authorities in Bali, Indonesia’s paradise island, introduced a ban on single-use plastics such as Styrofoam, plastic straws and plastic bags. Previously, the Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation of Thailand prohibited tourists from bringing single-use plastic into national parks since August 2018. The Summit itself opted for the concept of “green meeting,” therefore, many elements used during the event applied as much as possible, the three concepts of reuse, recycle and reduce. The host country used chairs made from recycled paper and served water in glass bottles. Most of the items used during the meetings such as the recycled paper chairs would be reused again throughout the entire year. At the end of the year, these chairs will be donated to schools to inspire children about preserving the environment, and reminding them that they can strive to become leaders to determine the future of ASEAN. Given that many ASEAN members produce tons of garbage that end up in the ocean yearly, such measures are only just the beginning. But at least ASEAN can prove to the world that it is working together as a region to become part of a sustainable solution.
The ASEAN Summit provided a platform for ASEAN Leaders to exchange views on regional and international issues of common concern, particularly on ASEAN’s position in the shifting global environment, and its centrality in the regional architecture. These agendas have been deliberated for over a year and half and culminated in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, endorsed by the Summit. The Outlook views ASEAN as the natural link connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This is an ASEAN approach based on ASEAN centrality, inclusiveness, and complementarity.
The 34th ASEAN Summit can be seen as an amalgamation of all the meetings and discussions that took place beforehand. The Summit and its outcome documents, although a milestone in Thailand’s Chairmanship, are not an end in itself. They are the means for ASEAN to achieve its aspirations and goals, be it Seamless Connectivity, Smart City or Digital and Green ASEAN. It is an ongoing process that every ASEANChair can carry on.
Thailand’s next task is to host the 52nd ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and Post Ministerial Conferences (AMM/PMC), including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS), during 29 July – 3 August 2019. While the 34th Summit yielded deliverables with emphasis on sustainability, the AMM/PMC will give ASEAN the opportunity to expand its aspirations beyond ASEAN, by enhancing partnership with friends and external partners.