ASEAN Summit to begin in Singapore with Trump absent

On the agenda will be the Rohingya crisis and tensions in the South China Sea

A man passes the ASEAN Summit signage at Suntec Convention Centre in Singapore, November 11, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su
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The bustling heart of Singapore is preparing to grind to a halt, with Asia-Pacific leaders and representatives from the 10-member states of the ASEAN bloc set to converge this week for the second and final summit of the island nation’s chairmanship.

Over 1,600 military personnel are being deployed for security at the 33rd ASEAN Summit’s multiple venues, with ramped-up coastal and aerial defences in place.

Streets are being sealed off in anticipation of receiving ASEAN leaders as well as high-level delegations from partner countries, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Indian President Narendra Modi and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

While United States President Donald Trump will not be in attendance, Vice President Mike Pence will attend in his place. Similarly, Chinese President Xi Jinping will be a no-show, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to lead the delegation.

A key expectation of the summit is further progress towards formalising the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a sprawling trade pact that includes 16 countries, including China, India, Japan and South Korea, but not the United States.

During the course of Singapore’s tenure as ASEAN chair, member states and China have produced a 19-page Single Draft South China Sea Code of Conduct — a show of coordination despite mounting tensions and shifting allegiances on matters of security in the contested and increasingly militarised waters.

Rights groups have expressed concern that the ASEAN bloc has a history of prioritising trade, and favouring a decidedly hands-off approach when it comes to human rights. Ahead of the summit, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a grouping of lawmakers who seek to uphold rights in Southeast Asia, is calling for human rights abuses in the region to remain in the spotlight.

In a statement issued ahead of the summit, APHR expressed concern that Cambodia had effectively marked a return to one-party rule, with the opposition barred from contesting July elections. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ has claimed over 4000 lives according to official figures — but rights groups such as Amnesty International say the body count could be three times higher.

However, there is likely one human rights issue expected to be firmly on the agenda, one that rights groups say will affect ASEAN’s credibility if it is not addressed.

In the wake of state-backed mass atrocities against the Rohingya in northwest Myanmar and the subsequent exodus of over 700,000 across the frontier into Bangladesh, Myanmar’s handling of the Rohingya crisis has divided ASEAN.


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Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad dispensed with formalities in an interview with Turkish news outlet TRT World last month, commenting that his government no longer considered Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and State Counsellor of Myanmar, to be an ally.

"We have made it quite clear we don't really support her any more,” he said. “Our policy in ASEAN is non-interference in the internal affairs of the countries, but this is ... grossly unjust.”

Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to attend the Singapore summit amid an ever-growing chorus of international condemnation. Myanmar has vehemently rejected allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and signalled defiance in the face of looming International Criminal Court (ICC) referrals.

As Myanmar prepares to repatriate the first batch of 2,260 Rohingya refugees from the sprawling camps of Bangladesh, civil society groups and INGOs have voiced concerns that conditions are not yet right.

“ASEAN leaders must do all they can to pressure Myanmar to end the abhorrent treatment of Rohingya – they cannot stand idly by while a possible genocide is unfolding in one of their member states,” said Charles Santiago, chair of the lawmakers' group and a Malaysian MP.

“Human rights are under threat throughout Southeast Asia. ASEAN’s destructive non-interference principle means that the bloc has been both unwilling and unable to take a stand against violations. This lack of action must end – human rights should take centre stage in Singapore.”

On other matters at the summit, the organisation is expected to negotiate with China on agreed conduct in the South China Sea. Beijing claims the majority of its waters but several ASEAN members, including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, dispute this with their own claims to parts of the strategic body of water.

But the organisation remains divided between those who support China and those who oppose its moves in the region, analysts say, making any agreement an unlikely prospect.

"[The South China Sea] issue splits [ASEAN] down the middle between claimants and non-claimants and those prepared to stand up to Chinese claims and those in China's sphere of influence," Tony Davis, defence analyst at IHS Jane's, a UK-based consultancy, said.