Tough agenda in Singapore

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Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks at a business forum on the sidelines of the 33rd Asean summit in Singapore on Monday. ROSLAN RAHMAN/afp

World leaders have a minefield of issues to clear, from trade and territorial disputes to a humanitarian crisis.

Asia-Pacific leaders join the heads of Southeast Asian governments this week in Singapore to renew pledges to resolve a wide range of issues, from the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar to growing trade and security tensions in the South China Sea.

Missing from the summit will be US President Donald Trump, whose absence will send an unflattering message to the region – that he is not as serious as his predecessors about a regional strategy aimed at keeping China at bay.

Instead, Vice President Mike Pence will join Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Chinese premier Li Keqiang, prime ministers Narendra Modi of India and Shinzo Abe of Japan and the leaders of all 10 member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Li is expected to seek support for China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free-trade pact currently being negotiated and intended to encompass more than a third of global GDP. Sixteen countries are preparing to sign on, but not the US, and Trump famously withdrew his country from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in which involved four Southeast Asian nations have remained involved.

The Trump administration is locked in a bitter trade conflict with China and he doesn’t seem to care that it’s undermining global markets. The summit in Singapore could have been an opportunity for the leaders of those two countries to repair their deteriorating relationship. Trump’s agenda has just suffered a setback in US congressional elections, though the reinvigorated Democratic Party is expected to help him sort out trade issues with China.

Unfortunately, American lawmakers seem heedless about how the dispute will affect Asia and especially our region, where China obtains much of the essential raw materials and parts it needs. It appears that Trump is uninterested in a comprehensive solution, wishing only to outmanoeuvre Beijing regardless of the impact on Southeast Asia.

Alongside this concern, Asean credibility will be at stake at the summit because of sharp differences among its members over Myanmar’s handling of the Rohingya ethnic minority. The UN has accused Myanmar of having genocidal intent in uprooting hundreds of thousands of the Muslim Rohingya from Rakhine state and forcing them across the border into Bangladesh.

The crisis is the thorniest issue ever to divide the 10-member regional bloc, which relies on consensus. Unlike the UN, the US and the EU, Asean has thus far refused to take a stand on the Rohingyas’ behalf, merely offering them humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile, Asean is expected to ink cooperation agreements at the summit with Russia and the US on cybersecurity. These will do nothing, though, to calm growing concern over the physical security situation in the South China Sea. Agreement has proved elusive on a proposed code of maritime conduct that might ease tensions between China and Asean’s several rival claimants to territory in the sea.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim parts of the area, as does Taiwan. Asean members will thus surely welcome Japan’s effort to keep the South China Sea free and open to all. It has suggested joint naval exercises and arms sales to Southeast Asia, subverting China’s influence.

With so many daunting issues floating precariously about, all eyes will be on Singapore itself, current chair of Asean. And watching most closely will be Thailand, which soon assumes the chairmanship for the coming year. the nation (thailand)