Asean foreign ministers will next week gather in the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai to brainstorm on various vexing issues, including the Rakhine crisis, South China Sea, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and an Indo-Pacific Strategy aiming to maintain its “centrality” for regional security architecture.
The January 17-18 meeting will be the kick-off for Thailand’s year chairing the bloc, with all 10 full ministers of the group at the table, says the Asean Affairs Department’s director-general, Suriya Chinadawongse.
In the meeting, Asean Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi will brief the ministers about his mission to Myanmar late last year, in an attempt to help solve the problem in the strife-torn Rakhine State.
More than 700,000 people fled from violence in Rakhine to refugee camps on the Bangladesh border since August 2017 when militant attacks on security outposts prompted a disproportionate “clearance operation” by the Myanmar military that killed thousands of people. The Rohingya Muslim minority faced atrocities of arson, murder, torture, gang rape and massacre, which the United Nations and international human right defenders have labelled as akin to “genocide”.
The Asean ministers are expected to support the role of the secretary-general in providing humanitarian assistance to Myanmar to solve the problem, Suriya said. “The key is we have to offer a ‘comfort level’ for Myanmar to deal with the issue,” he told reporters.
The ministers would also discuss the contentious South China Sea as the group is in a negotiation process with China as it seeks a code of conduct.
Asean, whose many members are at loggerheads with China in territorial disputes over the South China Sea, is now considering the first reading of the text of a code of conduct. “We intend to have three readings of the text and expect to finish our first reading by this year,” Suriya said, noting China proposed last year in Singapore that the two should have the legal binding code of conduct in place by 2021. The foreign ministers do not directly deal at the Chiang Mai meeting with negotiations for RCEP, but will demonstrate the political needed to support progress in the talks for a trade agreement.
RCEP, if completed as expected by the end of this year under Thailand’s year in the chair, would combine 16 economies in the Asia and Pacific into the world’s biggest economic bloc. The negotiation would benefit from the existing free-trade agreements Asean has with other countries in RCEP, but a major challenge is that some non-Asean members lack trade deals with each other, Suriya said.
The ministers at the Chiang Mai meeting will also explore the possibility of finding a common ground to deal with the Indo-Pacific Strategy, initiated by the US and its allies. The group wanted to have its own version of the strategy, but it might adopt a different name, he said.