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Singapore as ASEAN Chair

The Philippines was the center of attention of the international community last year when it assumed a significant role as that year’s chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Major achievements of its chairmanship that have often been lauded include agreement on the Framework on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and the signing of the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers.

Since November, however, all the attention has turned to Singapore, as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte passed the baton to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as the ASEAN Chair for 2018. With the rotating chairmanship, Singapore can now shape the agenda and set the direction of discussions of the regional bloc for the year. Singapore is also the coordinator of ASEAN-China dialogue relations from 2015 to 2018, following which the Philippines takes over for 3 years.

Singapore’s Security Agenda

This year, Singapore sets the focus on resilience and innovation.  As Chair, Singapore aims to start ASEAN projects that will strengthen its collective resilience against common threats faced by the member states, namely terrorism, cybercrime, and climate change. It also aims to promote schemes that capitalize on innovation and that help ASEAN economies to use technology to become a more dynamic and connected community. With this year’s themes, it can be noticed that Singapore starts to train greater focus on emerging non-traditional security issues.

On the security front, Singaporean Minister for Defense Dr Ng Eng Hen said that as the new ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) chair, Singapore will focus on three key thrusts: promoting regional counter-terrorism collaboration; growing a collective capability to defend against chemical, biological and radiological (CBR) threats; and propagating the use of practical confidence-building measures in the aviation and maritime domains.

Singapore has been always been steadfast in its efforts against terrorism because of identified threats against itself. With the Marawi incident, counter-terrorism efforts have become the first item on the priority list. Defense Minister Ng also reminds us that the devastation in Iraq and Syria can very well happen in ASEAN countries.

Second on this year’s thrusts is resilience against CBR threats, still due to terrorism and, additionally, rogue states like North Korea. North Korea’s nuclear tests and animosity with the United States has unsettled not only the region but the whole international community. Aside from cooperation among the governments of ASEAN members and its external partners, Singapore wants to encourage confidence-building measures and information sharing among experts and the military to “build understanding, if not trust” among nations to help deal with chemical and nuclear threats.

Lastly, Singapore wants to establish practical confidence-building measures (CBMs) in the aviation and maritime domains. Even with the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) adopted by ADMM-Plus countries last year and the start of negotiations for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, Singapore values the importance of developing a set of protocols to manage unexpected encounters specially for military aircrafts. Such a Code, according to Ng, will reduce the risk of any mishaps or miscalculation. It is also under Singapore’s chairmanship that the China-ASEAN Maritime Exercise will begin, which Ng said would help put CUES into practice.

Singapore on the SCS dispute

The South China Sea dispute remains one of the biggest challenges to ASEAN, and a great hurdle in ASEAN-China relations. Singapore as a non-claimant state has always tried to be impartial and not take sides in the issue. Analysts and critics await how the city-state would tackle the issue during its ASEAN Chairmanship. China has also been anxious. With the majority of Singapore’s population being Chinese, it has often been said that China thinks Singapore should listen more to Beijing. Beijing is among its top trade partners, thus it is also crucial for Singapore to maintain good relations with China. But as a major shipping hub, Singapore’s economic interests — like its other top trade and defense partner, the United States — coincide with freedom of navigation. As a small state, Singapore also relies on international law to protect its interests, which is why it supports a legally-binding Code of Conduct

Singapore has been the country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogue relations for the past three years. During this time, the Framework for the Code of Conduct was produced, a small yet significant progress contributing to a relatively more stable and peaceful South China Sea. The Framework does not specify whether the COC will be legally binding and leaves it to future discussions to carefully consider this aspect.

The Chairman's Statement for the 32nd ASEAN Summit, under Singapore’s leadership, retained the previous ASEAN language in the Philippine statement referring to disputes in the maritime sphere, stating that ASEAN member-states share a “commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region, as well as to the peaceful resolution of disputes, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, without resorting to the threat or use of force, in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” The statement also “emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, including those mentioned in the DOC that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea.”

This is significant as it indicates Singapore’s willingness to manage ASEAN’s stand on this issue while not giving it undue attention that can disrupt the rest of the regional agenda. The retained emphasis on non-militarization and self-restraint of all claimants and other states also symbolizes Singapore’s capacity to become an unbiased broker between the ASEAN claimant states and China.

Evolving Challenges in the Region

While cooperation on non-traditional security issues does matter and is significant for ASEAN’s development, resolving the long-standing disputes in the South China Sea in accordance with international law through a legally-binding Code of Conduct should also remain on top of the regional bloc’s priorities. Singapore as chairman should push beyond CBMs in aviation and maritime domains. A legally-binding Code of Conduct is one instance where regional interests align with Singapore’s own national interests. Thus, a legally-binding COC should therefore be promoted among its chairmanship’s main thrusts and highlighted as part of ASEAN’s future goals.

Going forward, ASEAN under Singapore’s leadership will also have to deal with the Quadrilateral security arrangement (involving US, Japan, Australia and India), and help define ASEAN’s role under the Indo-Pacific region concept. Can Singapore’s chairmanship, stir ASEAN to be an honest broker in the various security developments such as the Korean Peninsula, as Daniel Chua has argued? Will Singapore itself be able to sustain US attention in the region, given that Donald Trump snubbed the East Asia Summit last year? These hard questions will no doubt be in the minds of observers and policymakers in the region, as ASEAN continues to grapple with the simultaneous new developments while trying to find its own sense of self again.