25th ASEAN Summit: What you need to know

Natashya Gutierrez

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25th ASEAN Summit: What you need to know
Rappler compiles what to expect at the 25th ASEAN Summit in Myanmar from who will be attending, to important issues expected to be discussed

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar – Myanmar again will welcome some of the most powerful figures in the world as it hosts the the 25th ASEAN Summit and its related summits here at its administrative capital on Wednesday, November 12.

The event’s theme, “Moving Forward in Unity to a Peaceful and Prosperous Community,” aims to highlight the importance of a united ASEAN especially as it gears up for the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015.

At the ASEAN Summit Plenary Session, leaders are expected to discuss and exchange views on greater ASEAN connectivity, as well as regional and international issues. The conclusion of the summit will also see the handing over of the Chairmanship from Myanmar to Malaysia.

But the Summit also comes at a time of important developments in worldwide issues as well as in countries of leaders who will be attending the conference. Here’s all you need to know about the meeting which will run until Thursday, November 13.

Powerful attendees

Many of the leaders that will be flying to Naypyidaw will be coming straight from the ongoing APEC Conference in Beijing, China. Among them are US President Barack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the Philippine’s own Benigno Aquino III, among other ASEAN heads of state. Aquino will arrive in Myanmar on Tuesday evening, 11pm Myanmar time, from Beijing.

Other important guests include China’s premier Li Kequiang, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Korean Prsident Park Geun-Hye, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. It will also be newly-elected Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s first ASEAN Summit.

Important developments

The Summit comes against a backdrop of significant regional and international developments. Obama comes to Asia where he will seek to counterbalance Beijing’s regional dominance and help allies push back on China’s claims over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), fresh off his Democratic Party’s huge loss in the US midterm elections.

It will be interesting to see what Obama will be able to accomplish in ASEAN, or what tone the President will take during the Summit in key issues, especially after China and Russia appears to be strengthening its ties, most recently over a massive energy deal.

It will also be Aquino’s first ASEAN Summit since the Philippines submitted a memorial to a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal over a maritime dispute with China. The memorial, a nearly 4,000-page document, was submitted by the Philippines on March 29 in a bid to end what it considered decades of bullying by China. China however has refused to acknowledge the designated arbitral tribunal’s jurisdiction to hear the case. 

Other ASEAN countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei are also claimants in the disputed area, as is Taiwan.

Hot topic China

As in the past, China will continue to be a point of discussion, specifically their claims over disputed territories. The ASEAN community is expected to continue its push for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and for peaceful settlement of territorial disputes. China and ASEAN have been working on a COC for over a decade but without much success.

FOCUS ON CHINA. The relationship between China and ASEAN countries, especially regarding territorial claims in South China Sea will be a hot topic. APEC Photo from Malacañang Photo Bureau

The Summit also comes immediately after Abe and Chinese president Xi Jinping met in Beijing for the first time since 2012, perhaps signalling a breakthrough in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Japan and China have clashed over uninhabited, strategically important islands, believed to harbor vast natural resources below their seabed. The islands are called the Diaoyu by China and Senkaku in Japan. 

Aquino too will be meeting with Abe according to the latest presidential schedule. Just a few days ago, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said no bilateral talks were yet scheduled with the President because of his tight schedule, but an update shows the two leaders will meet on Wednesday afternoon, November 12, for about 25 minutes.

The talk, presumably on China, will make Aquino miss the opening of the 6th ASEAN-UN Summit. He is scheduled to follow immediately after the meeting.

The President is also expected to bring up China’s recent actions in the disputed waters before other ASEAN countries – including the sighting of two Chinese hydrographic ships in the potentially oil-rich Recto (Reed) Bank in the West Philippine Sea during the summit.

Eyes on Myanmar

Meanwhile, all eyes are on the host Myanmar as the 25th ASEAN Summit comes to a close. The DFA said Myanmar’s choice of theme also “manifests it commitment to contribute to the realization of a politically cohesive, economical integrated, socially responsible, and people-centered community.” But the reality is not as rosy as it is painted to be.

Just last week, Aung San Suu Kyi – who is scheduled to meet Obama on Friday – warned the reform process in the country is “stalling.” Myanmar President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian regime has earned international plaudits and the removal of most Western sanctions in return for reforms, including releasing most political prisoners and allowing Suu Kyi and her party into parliament. However, the government has faced growing accusations that it has backtracked on rights issues in recent months, with journalists jailed in several high-profile cases and dozens of activists arrested.

Obama is expected to reiterate his calls for open and free elections in Myanmar next year, but Suu Kyi is currently barred from taking the presidency – a position appointed by parliament – because of a clause in the junta-drafted constitution.

Important Issues

Aside from concerns over China and the key issue of the ASEAN Economic Community, other international issues that are expected to be discussed include the Ebola outbreak, the security threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), climate change, and the conflict in Ukraine.

As for the Philippines, the DFA said Aquino’s main concerns will be increased connectivity, greater cooperation on disaster risk reduction and management, increased protection for migrant workers, promotion of women’s and children’s rights, and increased support for small and medium sized enterprises.

AQUINO'S PRIORITIES. The President will push for migrant workers protection and disaster risk reduction and management among other topics during the ASEAN Summit. File photo by Malacañang Photo Bureau

The President will also visit the Filipino community in Myanmar, which is host to about 860 Filipinos, many of whom are engaged in the engineering and manufacturing sectors. The Philippine embassy said there are also Filipino professionals working in Myanmar as lawyers, teachers, architects, journalists and technical experts.

Summits Aquino will attend include the 25th ASEAN Summit Plenary Session; the 12th ASEAN-India Summit; the 17th ASEAN-Japan Summit; the 6th ASEAN-UN Summit; the 40th ASEAN-Australia Commemorative Summit; the 9th East Asia Summit Plenary Session; the 2nd ASEAN-US Summit; the 17th ASEAN-China Summit; and the 17th ASEAN Plus Three Summit.

He will also grace the launch of the ASEAN Institute of Green Economy, and a Gala Dinner hosted by Myanmar’s President for all ASEAN leaders and their delegations. – With reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.