Historic ASEAN summit opens under shadow of terror

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (UPDATED) – A historic summit to establish Asia's first sub-regional community opens this weekend but terror attacks and reports of suicide bombers put terrorism high on the agenda.

Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are meeting here from November 21 to 22 to endorse the implementation of an ASEAN community by year-end to launch a single market for goods, services, capital and labor across the region.

ASEAN dialogue partners including US President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are joining the series of meetings focused on regional integration, political and security issues like the South China Sea dispute, and trade deals.

Yet recent attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Egypt will shift the discussion to highlight countering terrorism in a region that is the source of hundreds of fighters joining the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In Mali, suspected Islamist gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu hotel on Friday, November 20, firing automatic weapons and holding hostage more than 100 guests and staff. At least 27 people died after special forces staged a dramatic rescue. 

News reports of a leaked Malaysian police memo warning against suicide bombers in Kuala Lumpur and Sabah put Malaysia on high security alert for the summits gathering 19 world leaders.

Here's what's on the table, and what's at stake for the Southeast Asian bloc.

Common counter-terror framework?

The ASEAN summit and related summits are actually 10 summits all happening in two days. Besides the actual ASEAN summit, there is the ASEAN+3 to include China, Japan, and South Korea, and the East Asia Summit (EAS).

Now on its 10th year, the EAS is the premier forum in the region tackling strategic geopolitical issues. Its members include Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States. ASEAN leaders will also meet with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said that the EAS will issue a declaration on countering violent extremism. The leaders are expected to condemn the terror attacks, as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) did in Manila this week, and to discuss ways to confront threats in the region.

After all, regional intelligence officials said that more than 500 Indonesians and over 50 Malaysians joined ISIS as of mid-2015, enough to form a unit by themselves. 

According to the portal Malaysiakini, the police memo on the suicide bombers in Malaysia was based on intelligence gathered from a meeting held on November 15 in Sulu, southern Philippines between ISIS and the Abu Sayyaf terror group, and the rebel group Moro National Liberation Front.

Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, told Bloomberg that ASEAN leaders must turn words into action.

"Southeast Asian governments should reflect deeply on what happened in Paris and understand there’s a new threat landscape emerging in Southeast Asia. There needs to be an an understanding that there should be a common framework for fighting terrorism in ASEAN."

Can economic integration deliver?

The ASEAN leaders will sign on Sunday, November 22, the 2015 Kuala Lumpur Declaration on the Establishment of the ASEAN Community. They will also sign a declaration on ASEAN 2025, laying out the organization's vision for the next 10 years.

The ASEAN Community paves the way for closer integration in the bloc's 3 pillars: economy, political-security, and socio-culture. Of the 3, much of the focus is on the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which aims to eliminate tariffs, to create a single market and production base, and to facilitate the movement of goods, services, capital and skilled labor.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak gave a rosy outlook for the AEC, which has a combined GDP of $2.5 billion, and a population of 600 million. "As a single market ...ASEAN will be the fourth largest in the world by 2050, at the latest," he said.

Yet observers believe ASEAN has more work to do to realize economic integration, despite the December 31, 2015 deadline.

Sanchita Basu Das, fellow at the ASEAN Studies Center in Singapore, said that less developed ASEAN members are still struggling with the 2015 commitments, while others like Indonesia grapple with nationalistic sentiments that slow down integration.

"While ASEAN may announce achievement of more than 90% of the AEC targets, that figure may not mean much to the business community or ordinary people in the region. Businesses continue to complain about multiple rules and regulations in the region which raise their trading and business costs across borders," she said.

Basu Das added: "Ordinary folk have yet to enjoy higher incomes and more job opportunities from ASEAN initiatives. In spite of the 10 countries having signed an agreement on movement of professionals, the actual movement is still subject to policies of individual nations."

Aquino and the South China Sea

On his last ASEAN summit, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III vows to push for a legally binding Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, after setting aside the issue when he hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at APEC in Manila.

His statement got the backing of ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh, who told the Associated Press that the non-binding 2002 Declaration of Conduct was never effectively implemented.

Obama also wants to raise the issue just days after renewing his call for China to stop its massive reclamation in the South China Sea.

Four ASEAN members are claimants in the dispute – the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia – along with Taiwan. Manila sued Beijing in a historic arbitration case that will be heard just days after the summit.

China though will likely block any discussion on the issue, with the premier wanting to focus on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade deal involving ASEAN, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

ASEAN will issue a joint statement on RCEP on Sunday. Officials said negotiations on the deal saw "some breakthroughs" and will be concluded by 2016. RCEP is seen as China's hedge against the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Beijing also wants to push for its Belt and Road initiative creating infrastructure projects in the region.

US-ASEAN Strategic Partnership

The US also intends to strengthen its links with ASEAN through a new strategic partnership. Najib said Obama will announce the agreement, which will be signed in Kuala Lumpur.

The Diplomat reports that the pact will lay out the future of US-ASEAN relations in the next 5 years, particularly on areas of cooperation, and on regional and global issues.

ASEAN established strategic partnerships with China, Japan, South Korea, India, and Australia.

US engagement with ASEAN is part of the Obama administration's strategic rebalance of economic and military attention to Asia after focusing on wars in the Middle East and the Ukraine crisis.

Also known as the Asian pivot, the policy is widely seen as a means to counter or contain China's rise as the two superpowers contest leadership in Asia's so-called Pacific century. – Rappler.com