Myanmar leads ASEAN into 2014

Author: Anita Prakash, ERIA

Myanmar’s political transition has found active support in all nations — but the 2011 ASEAN Summit in Bali encouraged the reforms by according Naypyidaw the association’s chairmanship in 2014.

Myanmar President Thein Sein arrives for the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh (Photo: AAP).

In this period of reform and transition, Myanmar now faces the challenge of leading a region that is working towards prosperity and integration, while remaining stable and peaceful in its pursuit of economic growth.

Domestically, Myanmar’s Framework for Economic and Social Reform sets out the country’s development priorities until 2016 and aims for peace, prosperity and democracy. There is a general consensus among those watching the reforms unfold that the government and the people are looking for the same tangible developments, mainly in improved and cheap access to healthcare and education, electrification, agrarian reforms, business facilitation, and improved infrastructure. But Myanmar’s road to development is also tinged by its unique demography. The path towards 2014 demands greater reconciliation among ethnic groups so as not to derail either the development process or the physical and moral resources of the government in chairing ASEAN and hosting other related summits in 2014.

On the external front, with ASEAN moving closer to its community-building objectives in 2015, there is renewed pressure on member countries to implement the ASEAN Community Blueprints as development gaps influence the quality and pace of economic integration. The East Asia Summit (EAS) presents an even more complex environment in both geopolitical and economic terms. The entry of the United States and Russia into the EAS in 2011 has rearranged the economic and strategic dynamics of the region. In particular, the US ‘pivot’ to Asia has revealed the trust deficit among many member countries, and new strategic alignments among regional players are now in the making. Disputes over the South and East China Seas, and the dormant volatility of the Korean peninsula, continue to loom over the region.

Against this backdrop, Myanmar’s early signs of leadership in ASEAN are commendable. Thein Sein’s acceptance speech, which he delivered in Bandar Seri Begawan on 10 October 2013, sets out the kind of leadership expected from the chair and sets the regional agenda for the entire year. The president has set the theme for ASEAN in 2014 as ‘moving forward in unity, towards a peaceful and prosperous community’. The effort to project ASEAN as a united, peaceful and prosperous region to the outside world is a sign of an outward-looking leader. Myanmar has also spelled out the importance of involving the public in building a successful ASEAN community. By all indications, the public’s involvement in, and ownership of, ASEAN is very low. Myanmar can make a meaningful contribution in bringing the community-building process closer to the people.

The president’s acceptance speech acknowledged the support of Myanmar’s neighbours in ASEAN and the dialogue partners of the EAS, many of which are now actively supporting the country’s infrastructure development and, in the process, the reform process. It is no secret that some ASEAN member states were sceptical about the prospect of Myanmar’s chairmanship. However, Myanmar has been more open than previous chairs in noting the role of dialogue partners in regional development. These partners have intensified their cooperation in implementing the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity and the ASEAN Community Blueprints. Myanmar’s chairmanship is expected to take ASEAN’s relationship with the dialogue partners to a more constructive level.

As the economic integration of ASEAN and East Asia moves forward through mechanisms such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, Myanmar must use its chairmanship to keep these agreements on track. However, strategic and security concerns in the region continue to overshadow cooperation. The South China Sea and East China Sea disputes are unlikely to see an early and amicable resolution. The strategic re-positioning of China and the United States will also see a continued realignment of countries in the EAS. Member countries have to balance their economic aspirations with regional security issues. Developing a rules-based security regime for the region, especially in maritime security, is of utmost importance.

Myanmar’s leadership in 2014 will therefore assume critical importance as it persuades member countries to follow the principles contained in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and the 2011 Declaration of the East Asia Summit on the Principles for Mutually Beneficial Relations (Bali Principles). While cooperation on development initiatives in six priority areas — the environment and energy, education, finance, global health issues and pandemic diseases, natural disaster management, and ASEAN connectivity — are progressing well, the security cooperation agenda is lagging behind. Myanmar would do well to focus on this early in the year.

As ASEAN moves closer to the realisation of its community in 2015, it must also look to the future in order to sustain its current momentum. Similarly, the EAS also has to chalk out its regional and global role for the future — one that optimises the group’s economic and political influence on the world order. Myanmar now has both the challenge and the opportunity to lead the region into an ambitious and decisive future.

Anita Prakash is Director of Policy Relations at the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.